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The Color of Conflict – Dealing with Diversity Conversations in the Workplace

By Kevin Richard McNulty

“…an overwhelming portion of the intensely demonstrated animosity toward President Barack
Obama is based on the fact that he is a black man…” — Former President Jimmy Carter

Do you agree or disagree? Regardless of your answer, if you’re a manager in your organization,
you should be concerned. As you’ve probably noticed, prominent figures by the very nature of
their popularity can influence the shape, quality, and direction of important conversations taking
place in society. And when you consider that the workplace is a microcosm of society, well then
influential people can influence conversations around the water cooler. These conversations then
can get out of control and damage your organization’s human relations climate, productivity, and
potentially create violations of equal employment laws. More specifically, comments like those
of Carter—without any qualitative justification—can in fact undermine the advances made in
terms of our relationships and forward-thinking conversations about diversity.

Many interpreted Carter’s comments to suggest that the demonstrators were racist; and we can
hardly advance the conversation about diversity if racism is the main issue. Racism is more
deliberate and based in hatred; and diversity more is about values and differences. For instance,
if I were a racist, I would fundamentally hate or dismiss you because of your race. Conversely, it
is possible that I may be ignorant about or simply not subscribe to your culture; but this is a
diversity issue—I have a bias, different opinion, or a different set of values. As you can see
there is quite a difference in being a racist and being insensitive. You must combat racism and
work through diversity issues.

So how might these conversations impact your workplaces and what can you do about it? Well
this depends on for instance, the organization’s current human relations climate, whether there
have been past problems regarding race relations, whether people are polarized or are inclined to
interact regularly, and/or how much effort the company leadership has invested in building
workplace relations. Nonetheless, here are a few things you can consider that will help you
better deal with diversity and other people related issues:

First, recognize that workplaces tend to be reflective of local society. If your local community
is having difficulties in terms of diversity and/or race relations, you should look out for these
issues in the workplace. Also recognize that statements from influential people in the news and
media can indeed fan the flames and heighten tensions in the community and workplace.

Second, don’t stick your head in the sand when it comes to diversity and race relations in the
workplace. In my 25 years of dealing with these issues, I have found the worst thing an
organization’s leadership can do is to let divisive people-problems linger; allowing negative
perceptions and bad feelings to mount. In 2001, Cincinnati erupted in widespread racial unrest
days after a white police officer fatally shot an unarmed black man. It was apparent as the media
covered the riot that many were shocked that a race riot ensued. Later it was concluded that the
racial tensions were always there, but folks simply were unaware or had their heads in the sand.
The truth is, people want to have an honest conversation about these issues, but so many are
afraid to broach the subject, afraid to be labeled a racist or accused of “playing the race card.”
Third, keep your ear to the ground and your antennas out. Be sensitive and pay attention to the
problems and issues being discussed within your organization. One “best practice” I recommend
is to have a manager who has the additional duty of monitoring “the pulse of the organization’s
people climate.” Now this is not the “PC Police,” but being transparently in tune with issues that
might negatively impact the organization. One “tool” or technique that we recommend is a
version of “Management By Walking Around” (MBWA). It would be this manager’s role to
visit workplaces regularly with the intention of having informal conversations to understand
what’s going on “under the radar.” They would then provide feedback to the managerial staff
about any issues uncovered.

The handling of diversity and a myriad of other workplace people issues—be they conversations,
conflict or other concerns—can be complicated and necessitate a balancing act in terms of your
approach. Know that there are people and forces (including our own perceptions) on all sides of
the debate that also complicate matters. But as long as we remain aware of these issues and
forces, and understand how they influence our people and workplaces, we can sometimes diffuse
them with a little common sense. Further, we can use them to improve relations in the

Kevin Richard McNulty is a speaker, consultant, and thought-leader who inspires
and motivates people to enhance their professional capacities and competencies.
As the CEO Humadyn, a consulting company specializing in workplace skills and
productivity, Kevin has over 25 years of experience improving the lives of
individuals and organizations that impact the bottom line results, workplace
relationships, job satisfaction, and productivity. Through his unsurpassed
interpersonal skills, he has transformed key leaders and employees to reach their potential and
help to better serve their organization's needs.

You can contact Kevin by email at Kevin@humadyn.com, by phone 615-587-2710, or going to