Workplace tip of the month (and for the indefinite future):
No matter how well you mean, don’t ask your co-workers to be your personal ambassador to what you don’t understand if they aren’t people you have an actual friendship with where these matters are regularly discussed.
Don’t ask the black co-worker who you barely speak with about Ferguson, Baltimore, the murders in Charleston, the arson fires of black Southern churches, etc.
Don’t ask your gay co-worker who you barely speak with what they think about Bruce Jenner becoming Caitlyn Jenner, the Supreme Court ruling in support of gay marriage, thoughts on the purpose of gay pride celebrations, etc.
The examples could go on — whites, Christians, Muslims, motorcycle riders, whatever is in the current news cycle.
In a nutshell, don’t ask your co-workers who you barely speak with about anything controversial in the news these days, because even though it may not seem work-related, I guarantee you it will affect their workday.
And just because it may not not seem controversial to you personally doesn’t means it’s a good idea to raise it as a discussion point at a meeting that’s about to be over or in a lunchtime chitchat.
For many, it gets tiresome being a walking Wikipedia, representing an entire group of people. It gets exhausting for a few reasons. One, to the person who lives certain issues every day, it seems a lazy request for a simplified learning curve.
Two, when the person doesn’t have an ongoing friendship with you, it can make you feel marginalized, not just personally but professionally. On the other hand, with friends whom you work with or friendly co-workers whom you have engaged in dozens of conversations about a dozen different topics, it’s usually different when they ask you about your take on a tricky subject.
Additionally, in some cases, a co-worker or person you barely know, asking for your enlightenment can have a paternalistic demand to it — as if it’s your responsibility to bring them up to speed on complex, personal topics and social issues.
In times like now, it’s particularly important for managers and supervisors to keep their antennae high for these conversations so that they can intercede when necessary. Be particularly on the lookout for conversations where the emotions are heightened because someone is being pushed where they want to go by another co-worker.
Also, as a supervisor make sure that you are not being selective in which battles you quash and which you let spiral out of control. Whether the issue is the Confederate flag, debating the definition of marriage or the media portrayal of unrest in the African-American community, or countless other splinter conversations about ongoing issues, make sure employees put a lid on it in company space.
While conversations about these important social issues do need to take place in respectful yet honest times and places, they don’t need to take place where people have to fear being honest because they are in the minority.
Also, others shouldn’t take advantage of diversity in their workplaces to have conversations they don’t have in their less diverse personal lives.
Send questions to Michelle T. Johnson on Facebook at www.facebook.com/diversitydiva.