So, let’s talk practical. Like everyday practical. Like the kind of practical that supersedes law, policy and your company handbook.
At what point as a co-worker do you allow conversations and jokes to create a comfortable environment for someone you work with to hang a noose?
Many of you will think that I’m just talking about the recent incident at a Kansas City business where a manager tied a noose and a trashbag around a slave doll in the break room to make commentary about the Sandra Bland incident.
But unfortunately, even in our modern workplace — well past Jim Crow, decades into employment law protection prohibiting discrimination — the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission still reports several dozen complaints regarding nooses in recent years.
One of the cases I worked on over a dozen years ago as an employment attorney involved an allegation by a black employee that a co-worker had hung a noose in a common area.
The law typically attributes liability to the employer when these matters are found to have created liability. But what about the pragmatic issues around people doing egregious acts in the workplace based on someone’s race or gender or sexual orientation? Or even workplace bullying not directly covered by discrimination law?
It’s hard to imagine someone not being pointedly questioned if he’s seen making a noose at his desk, or up on a chair attaching it to the ceiling in a break room. But even if someone does all this on the sly without being noticed, what creates a workplace where anyone thinks this is acceptable or, worse, humorous? In short, that this is a workplace where that sort of act is welcome, instead of anything other than a firing offense?
It’s understood that one human being often can’t stop another human being from committing a horrific act — whether the act is hanging a noose in the workplace, using a pejorative slur, or something as potentially deadly as bringing a weapon to the workplace.
And no one wants to be a snitch when hearing inappropriate words and conversation, and it can be difficult knowing how to handle it when it’s a supervisor or a beloved co-worker who engages in the prejudicial negativity that can infect a workplace.
But we should all be reminded that the spoken jokes, practical jokes, conversations, words, references and actions that you participate in help set a tone in the workplace.
If you are participating in or consciously ignoring the tiny termites of wrong, don’t be surprised when one person takes it over time as permission to bring the whole workplace down.
Send questions to Michelle T. Johnson on Facebook at www.facebook.com/diversitydiva.