Unjustified complaints?

How to correctly deal with a sexual accusation and encouraging a new
employee to accept his ethnic colleagues. Advice by Madelyn P Jennings

Q: "A manager who reports to me has complained several times that the
sexist attitudes of some of her co-workers have impeded her advancement. In at
least one instance, she had a legitimate reason to complain about an obnoxious
peer and we spoke to him about his comments, but we’ve not found any basis for
her other complaints. How can I help her move past these suspicions?"

A: This situation reminds me of a book by Laura Archera Huxley called
You Are Not The Target (Metamorphous Press, Reissue Edition, 1995). Huxley
demonstrates that much of what happens to you is not intended, may be random
and certainly isn’t aimed at making you a victim. Huxley offers suggestions
about how to become more objective in responding to things that happen to us.

Your employee has had an upsetting encounter with a peer, and your
organisation responded with a counselling session with him. However, she
apparently believes career-slowing sexist attitudes continue to affect her.
This isn’t to suggest she shouldn’t be concerned, but I would recommend you
advise her to focus more on her performance than the attitudes of her
co-workers. If an investigation hasn’t produced evidence for her other
complaints, she might be complaining about sexism when her discontent really
stems from elsewhere.

I might tell her I would like to have tea or coffee with her to talk about
her career aspirations. If she had her wish, what would her next job be? What
about the job after that and what would be the next steps towards those goals?
Ask her, too, how she sees her present work environment. Listen closely. She
may raise some criticisms you haven’t heard before, plus some you may already
have. Address their validity one by one. As her manager, it’s your
responsibility to determine if the environment is the problem and, if so, it’s
your responsibility to fix it.

However, if you conclude that she is using the complaint system as a crutch
to mask some shortcomings, you must carefully but firmly walk her through an
analysis showing why her concerns aren’t valid.

Q: "There has been a lot of recent discussion about the need to
respect diversity in the workplace and elsewhere. Unfortunately, I have an
employee who is very cool, even curt, with people of other races and some
ethnic groups. He is a newcomer from a small town and our organisation is a
large one in an urban centre. How can I help him overcome his possible

A: It may be hard to tell if this person is simply shy; feeling out
of his depth and somewhat intimidated by the faster-paced, big-city environment
he finds himself working in; or seething with prejudices he learned from his
family or in his community. Whatever the reason, it is important you get to the
bottom of it.

First, I’d sit down with him and some of his peers, perhaps with a diversity
expert to facilitate the discussion, to talk about how they can respond to the
need to respect diversity. See what comes out around the table.

If he’s silent through most of the meeting, follow it up immediately with a
one-on-one conversation. Try to get him to talk about the issue. Use the
conversation as an opportunity to underline that your company values diversity
and it’s not a "would-be-nice" type of operating principle, but
actually a business imperative. Remind him that the world is more diverse and
success comes from all types of people working together.

Review some top-line statistics about the employee and customer base that
illustrate how diversity management has a bottom-line component. Explain how
employee satisfaction and customer loyalty are based on trust and respect,
which develop through basic communication. His curt behaviour may
unintentionally signal a lack of respect, which can prompt reactions directly
opposed to loyalty indicators.

You might involve him in a training session with some of his colleagues,
including videotaping them in role-playing exercises with diversity themes.
When people see themselves on tape, they usually get a clearer sense of how
they come across, for good or bad.

To see if these steps are producing results, observe him in meetings to see
if he is more forthcoming than before. Try to ascertain if he’s interacted more
comfortably with co-workers of other races or ethnic groups and if he’s relaxed
enough to engage in camaraderie that he seemed unreceptive to before.

I would continue to talk with him to let him air his feelings about his job,
his performance, his adjustment to the urban scene, his suggestions for
improving matters in the workplace. I’d probably add him to a committee or team
to help him connect with people and work more co-operatively. If he has real biases,
they will emerge in these situations. And then serious counselling and probably
a performance improvement plan, may be in order.

P Jennings is a principal of the Cabot Advisory Group (www.cabotgrp.com), a
US-based company of veteran senior HR executives from global organisations.
Cabot principals have direct experience designing and implementing creative,
practical solutions to today’s leading HR challenges. Jennings was formerly
senior vice-president of HR at Gannett Co.

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