In an episode of the NBC sitcom The Office, clueless office manager Michael Scott tries to lead a meaningful discussion on race with his employees—and offends nearly all of them in the process. Such a clumsily executed discussion is probably not what President Barack Obama had in mind when he implored Americans to use the workplace as a forum for productive discussions about race in a speech following the George Zimmerman verdict.
In his remarks, Obama said: "There has been talk about should we convene a conversation on race. I haven't seen that be particularly productive when politicians try to organize conversations. They end up being stilted and politicized, and folks are locked into the positions they already have. On the other hand, in families and churches and workplaces, there's the possibility that people are a little bit more honest . . ."
But former General Electric Company in-house counsel Lorene Schaefer, now a workplace investigator and mediator, says companies should carefully consider how, or whether or not, to take the president's advice. Framing the conversation the wrong way could do more than leave an employer looking like a fool, she says — it could result in a lawsuit.
"I've seen diversity training create more problems than it helps," Schaefer says. "I think [Obama] is enormously well-intentioned, but employers who want to initiate this type of discussion should involve their corporate counsel very carefully."
She points to documents instructing Target Corporation supervisors on how to discuss race, which were recently leaked and published in the Huffington Post. The comments on the article range from lauding Target to condemning the company's efforts, which Schaefer says is representative of how employees might react to such discussions.
"No one would argue that what Target is doing isn't well-intentioned," Schaefer says. But it's hard to predict how people are going to react to such a discussion, she notes, or what the formal program might morph into when it continues as informal talk in the lunchroom.
And then there's just the risk of taking on the issue in a ham-fisted manner: a local Target manager sent around documents about diversity to employees, in response to the corporation-wide documents, which included negative stereotypes of Mexican, Cuban, and other workers, and resulted in a lawsuit.
Schaefer says if employers want to start a discussion in their workplace about race, they should approach their in-house counsel first. Corporate counsel should then ask employers what they are trying to accomplish and what their goals are before beginning the conversation.
Richard Cohen, a partner in Fox Rothschild's labor and employment practice, says he thinks corporate counsel will rarely advise employers to broach the topic of race in the workplace. "Someone who's about to be fired might claim that the fact the employer brought up race in the workplace during lunch hour shows that the employer has race on his or her mind, so there could be some raised animus," he says.
But according to "Racial Color Blindness: Emergence, Practice, and Implications," a recent study by Michael Norton, an associate professor of business administration at Harvard Business School, bringing up race can be beneficial for a workplace when done in an inclusive, nonoffensive way. His research showed that people who try to avoid talking about race actually are perceived to be more racist — which might make them more liable to land in a lawsuit.
"There are people [who are] very risk averse, who basically say [talking about race] might be a good idea, but we're not willing to take a risk opening Pandora's Box," Norton says. "But Pandora's Box is already opened. People are already thinking about [race], so it's better to acknowledge it."
He said that companies should have "Diversity Days" that celebrate not only the heritage of historically marginalized minorities, but the heritage of groups like Irish- or Italian-Americans, as well. "The idea is, you're not just talking about underprivileged groups. It takes the stigma off," Norton says.
His findings support Obama's notion that Americans can gain a lot by discussing race in the workplace — just be sure not to look to The Office for tips.•