I could not believe the words I was hearing. “Jeff, you have a hostile working environment.” I don’t think the man sitting across the desk from me could have said anything that stunned me more than those three words: Hostile working environment

Jim had turned in his notice to resign a few days prior. When someone decides to leave my organization, I make it a point to sit down and chat about their reasons for leaving, especially when they are not one of my direct reports. Many times the answers are about money, career advancement, or new challenges. Occasionally, it revolves around a difference of opinion with a direct supervisor (I am usually well aware of those cases). But, never has it been a hostile working environment.

Building a diverse team

What was he TALKING about? As a business leader, I had always sought to build a diverse team. I looked for ways to ensure the women in my department could grow, learn, and develop. Information Technology has been male-dominated for too many years. My department was a melting pot of diversity. The team represented gender, multiple races, and multiple religions. Earlier in my career, I had made it a point to learn French…to understand French culture…so I could better relate to the members of my team who resided in Paris. More recently, I had made sure our Muslim employees had a place and the time for their daily prayers…even holding a pitch-in meal to celebrate the end of Ramadan with them. How could this be a hostile working environment?

A deer in the headlights

I think Jim sensed my stunned reaction, or maybe it was the deer-in-the-headlights expression on my face that gave it away. Whatever the case, he looked at me and said, “Jeff, I’m gay.”

Again, my mind swirled. I had no idea. But, that was a good thing, right? One’s sexual orientation should be private, right? Besides, I have always been open and accepting, after all, my brother is gay, some of my best friends are gay and lesbian…I want to create an environment where everyone feels comfortable and can learn and grow.

Jim went on to say, “No one has said anything to me directly. In fact, most people don’t even know, I choose to keep it quiet. However, it is the jokes, the off-hand comments, the locker room banter that makes me uncomfortable.” (OK, Jim didn’t really use the term locker room banter, I just paraphrased a bit). He continued, “It’s not just one person, but it seems to come from the same three or four people.”

I told Jim I was sorry he had not come to me with this before he made the decision to leave, I certainly don’t condone it, I was not aware of it if I don’t know I can’t fix it, I didn’t know how to address it just yet, but I vowed I would address it. Was it too late? Would he entertain staying? He explained he had already accepted another offer and did not want to go back on his word. He also did not want to be the centre of a controversy.

Finding a solution

Over the next couple of days, I thought long and hard about the situation. I wanted whatever I did to have a “shock factor”, to make the team see what they were doing. There was no way I could continue with a hostile working environment. I wanted it to include some training and discussion. And, I wanted to draw a line in the sand…zero tolerance. The upcoming All-Staff Meeting was a great time to do this. Everyone would be together. I sat down with our VP of Human Resources, explained the situation, enlisted her help, and together we launched my plan of action. (Always good to have HR involved when you are going for “shock factor”).

The morning of April 1st the whole team (sans Jim who opted to take the day off) gathered in the conference room. Of course, everyone wondered why the VP of HR was in the room. I just smiled and replied it would become apparent shortly. As was my fashion, I stood in front of the team and kicked off the meeting. “In honour of April Fool’s Day, I thought I would start with a few jokes.” I started with a joke derogatory towards men. It drew laughter from the room. I then told a derogatory joke about women. While this drew some laughter, it also drew some “Jeehfff?!!?’s”, as well. I went on to tell jokes about blacks, Latinos, Muslims, gays, and lesbians. By the time I was finished, the room was silent…dead silent.

Examples of poor behaviour

I continued, “By now, I have undoubtedly offended everyone in the room. We have a problem. These are examples of some of the jokes that have been told here in the office in our department.” I went on to provide some examples of the exact quotes Jim had passed on to me. “Now, you may think you are being funny. In some circles, these comments might be acceptable and considered funny. Not here. You never know who is listening, you never know who might not appreciate the comment or be offended by the comment. That person may laugh at your joke, but he or she could be boiling in anger and resentment on the inside.”

“In a previous job, I had a colleague that used to send a group email on a daily basis with jokes in it. As an election year dawned, her jokes become pointedly political, making fun of democrats in very unflattering ways. At one point in our careers, we had been peers, we were now separated by three tiers of the organization. I sent her a note that merely said, “Jill, you never know who you might be offending by these jokes. This is not the place for them. Sincerely, Your boss’ boss’ boss and a tree-hugging democrat.”

It stops now

“This type of behaviour stops here and stops now. I have asked our VP of HR to join us today. We will spend the rest of the meeting with her leading us in a training workshop intended to raise awareness of those around us and to provide tools to those who might feel singled out in the future. These tools will help them find their voice to raise concerns before things get out of hand.” I then turned the meeting over to the VP of HR. What followed was a heartfelt discussion.

So, what did I learn from this? (Besides the fact that when you Google for the type of jokes I was looking for, you learn there are a lot of misogynistic, racist, homophobic, xenophobic people out there and their jokes are disgusting!!)

The Fallacy of the Open Door

I have always prided myself on having an open door. Anyone at any time can talk to me about (just about) anything. The fallacy of the open door policy is it implies two things. First, it implies you are sitting in your office (and not in a meeting) waiting for people to come to you. Instead, you have to get out from behind the desk and get involved with people. That doesn’t mean management by walking around. That means getting involved with them; talking, going to lunch, getting to know them and their families.

Second, it implies everyone feels comfortable coming to you with any issue at any time. Many people will see how “busy you are” going to meetings, working on projects, not being in your office, and will get the feeling they are an interruption and they won’t want to bother you. Others, are private and may not feel comfortable sharing their struggles. Still, others may feel they can “power through” and may not want to admit to what might be perceived as a weakness. Again, I say you have to go to them. You have to get to know them.

Team Does Not Mean Same

As leaders and managers, we strive to build cohesive, high-functioning teams. It’s how we get things done and accomplish the goals of our businesses. Many intentionally create teams of people who have complementary skills and backgrounds. Humans tend to surround themselves with like-minded individuals; people that look and think as they do. As we are building these diverse teams, it is easy to forget some of the team members may not have ever worked on a team based on diversity. Not everyone understands or even wants to understand cultural differences.

Those diversity classes HR conducts are more than just checking the box on EEOC practices. They should be taken seriously. As leaders, we have to take them seriously so those around us take them seriously. If you don’t have diversity training, perhaps it is time to start a program. However, even before that, perhaps as we are building teams we should look for people that embrace diversity in the first place.

The Day-to-Day can cloud the Here-and-Now

We all get comfortable with the day-to-day. We get caught up in the challenge of the day or the hour and forget to listen and observe. When Jim sat in my office and described the discomfort he had been feeling, I was stunned. I hadn’t known, I had not seen it, I had heard none of those things he had shared.

We need to remind ourselves to slow down and observe, to slow down and listen. It is easy to tune out the banter that takes place in the workplace. It fades into background noise. We need to tune into it and remind ourselves and others it may be approaching a line that we don’t even know is there.

I stay in touch with Jim via LinkedIn, exchanging pleasantries on birthdays and work anniversaries. He comes to mind often. I think of the lessons learned and the reminders of lessons past. As we build teams in this melting-pot that is today’s workplace, we should remember the Jims, Janes, Muhammads, and Alejandras who are a part of our lives, and the opportunities to learn that they bring.

Images by Depositphotos

  • About the Author
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Looking to amp up your audience and inspire them to grow as leaders?

Keynote speaker and best-selling author, Jeff Ton has been amplifying
audiences around the world for two decades. With deep experience as a
technology and business executive, he draws on his background to educate,
inspire, and entertain audiences large and small. Jeff authored Amplify Your
Job Search – Strategies for Finding Your Dream Job (2020) and Amplify
Your Value – Leading IT with Strategic Vision (2018). His insights have been
featured in Forbes, Huffington Post, Information Week, among others.

When his teenage dreams of becoming a rockstar collided with reality,
he traded his guitar for a computer keyboard and became a rockstar of
a different kind. After launching his career as a software developer, Jeff
became an industry-recognized leader and business executive, building
teams and leading organizations in the banking, consumer electronics, real
estate development, non-profit, and technology sectors.