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The Real Danger of a Hostile Workplace

The United States may have had a brief Kumbaya moment when it elected its first black President, but that now seems in the distant past.

Today, troublesome signs of conflict and workplace harassment abound. Anti-immigration rhetoric is running strong; the number of reported assault crimes against Muslims has spiked to numbers higher than the prior peak of 2001. In a Kansas bar, a man allegedly yelled, “Get out of my country” before shooting two Indian engineers employed at Garmin—bragging later about shooting Iranians.

The country’s sharp political divide is causing rifts in the workplace, according to a survey by the Society for Human Resource Management. It found that 52 percent of employers nationally said their workplaces experienced greater political volatility—increased tension, hostility, or arguments due to political affiliation—during the 2016 election than in any previous cycle. And 60 percent said employees are being more vocal about their political opinions.

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In 2017, Jon Hurst, president of the Retailers Association of Massachusetts, told the Boston Globe that many employers feel paralyzed because of the tense political climate and are refraining from speaking out for fear of offending anyone in today’s potentially hostile workplace.

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Today’s highly charged atmosphere coincides with the continuing diversification of the racial and ethnic makeup of the retail workforce, something that researchers have found can impact the potential for violence. Studies demonstrate a correlation between workplace harassment and exclusion based on ethnicity.

Conflicts also increase with employees’ use of non-English languages in the workplace, according to a paper to the Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology symposium, “Emerging Workplace Diversity Issues: Ethnicity, Bilingualism, and Workplace Exclusion.” It raises questions for any retail executive whose responsibility includes preventing violence, bullying, and workplace harassment.

  • Have we considered changes in workplace ethnicity and political tensions as a risk factor for workplace conflicts?
  • Do we know which ethnic groups are growing most rapidly among our workforce, customers, and other visitors?
  • Have political ideologies or diversity in the workplace caused any problems?
  • Should we provide additional training on cultural sensitivity to supervisors to help them handle a hostile workplace?

There is a persistent sense that job opportunities are vanishing and workplaces are increasingly ethnically and racially diverse—creating a potential risk recipe that security and workplace violence prevention teams need to examine. Unchecked, racial hostilities can—and have—resulted in workplace tragedies involving multiple victims.

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Many retailers embrace the concept of a melting pot of workers with different demographic characteristics, backgrounds, attitudes, ideas, and experiences. “However, they must also make a concerted effort in providing an environment of justice, tolerance, and civility within which a diverse workforce can succeed,” warns Sameer Hinduja, a member of the department of criminology and criminal justice at Florida Atlantic University.

The issue demands a high level of cooperation among company managers. Hinduja says his research finds that discrimination and workplace harassment, coping mechanisms, and security issues are inextricably linked. Company leaders in charge of each area need to cooperate with one another when devising strategies to address the issue.

Some possible actions to take:

  • Lay the foundation for preventing violence stemming from racial or ethnic tensions with a strict policy; periodic reminders to employees of acceptable and unacceptable behavior through emails, notices, or training; and swift discipline for any violations. Some companies make special note of the issue in the workplace violence prevention policy, specifically prohibiting threats based on race or ethnicity. Possible language: “Any acts of violence as defined in this policy directed against individuals based on race, religion, ethnicity, gender, or sexual orientation are especially intolerable and will be subject to the strictest disciplinary actions.”
  • Provide diversity training for supervisors.
  • Aggressively address complaints of racial harassment or threats. Racial incidents can gain momentum and quickly deliver a devastating blow to the workplace culture.
  • Take the temperature of the workplace in the wake of political elections. Surveys show the 2016 election caused high stress and tension.
  • Be willing to acknowledge the role that race or religious intolerance plays in workplace anger or aggression—something that can be hard for retail organizations to face—and examine how the corporate culture may lessen or exacerbate tensions.
  • Consider appointing different workplace violence team members to represent different worker population groups and liaison with them. The strategy prevents cultural and language barriers from obscuring threats and ensures that any concerns are known to the violence prevention team. The “champion” for each group can also be made responsible for tracking nuances of prejudice that group faces and identifying when it may be appropriate to provide updated training to managers to prevent its occurrence.
  • Loss prevention and asset protection teams need to track and analyze incidents and investigate complaints of workplace harassment and bullying for any suggestion that race or ethnic discrimination is a contributing cause. Any incident, such as the discovery by LP staff of a racist remark written in an employee restroom, needs to be passed along to the violence prevention team or the company’s multicultural steering committee so that the root cause—and not just the graffiti—is addressed.

This post was originally published in 2017 and was updated October 16, 2018. 

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