Sunday, July 19, 2009

HR: take note: Times have changed: cultural misunderstandings can lead to hostile workplace or discrimination litigation quickly

In 1997, I recall reading a letter to a workplace editor in the Minneapolis Star Tribune from someone whose troubles had started when he passed a joke around the office on a piece of paper. Someone took it as racist. Soon there was a human resources investigation, and 24 hours after the “inquisition” started, the person was terminated. And this incident happened in the “bricks and mortar” world; it didn’t involve the Internet at all (surprise!).

Times have changed. Disputes do happen in workplaces, and they sometimes lead to litigation. Often it is difficult to determine exactly how a conflict started (and civil cases go by a “51%” standard). In practice, some edgy but perhaps acceptably ambiguous statement by one party is taken as offensive or threatening because of the cultural perspective of the other party, and an escalation (“World War I style”) occurs, leading to ultimatums. Six months or so later, managers are sitting in lawyers’ officers having under-oath depositions taped, transcribed, and word-tracked. Perhaps they get shingles from the anxiety produced by the process.

Hostile workplace is a serious matter (it’s older and more familiar than the modern “reputation defense” problem), and that’s one reason I wrote, in March 2000, a piece (look for "Bill Boushka" "White paper" "employment agreements") about the future dangers that blogging or Internet web-publishing could pose, if they were found by search engines and viewed as implicitly “within workplace” conversations since they could become known by search engines. Some HR people have reacted to me by saying that it is only a problem when the associate mentions that he or she publishes on line, creating in effect an “anti-selection” problem for management.

HR departments do need to provide training on these issues. Often they punt, because they don’t like to imagine that grown-ups will behave like kids with sandpiles (to use the terminology of Joshua Cooper Ramo) sometimes. But they do. Remember, we are living in the age of the unthinkable.

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