Preventing Racial and Other Offensive Slurs In The Workplace

Yes, the political brouhaha related to “the squad” and the President has implications within your workforce. First and for example, the EEOC has found that “go back” type comments are clearly discriminatory within the workplace (even though it may be tolerated in the political environment). Also, because of today’s politically charged environment, your workers are more aware, and they are likely to react strongly to all types of racial, religious and national origin slurs. So, the single use of a slur in the workplace today will now likely have an even stronger negative impact on your recruiting, retention, productivity and employee stress. And in a few cases, a handful of your employees may be more emboldened to consider using derogatory language in your workplace.

In this highly charged environment, I find that your employees will eventually learn to expect you to go beyond the standard practice of merely investigating offensive language after it occurs. Instead, smart managers will take proactive actions to predict why, when, and where they are most likely to occur, so most harassing slurs can literally be prevented in your workplace.

If you want to predict and prevent derogatory language at your firm, there are three foundation steps to take.

Step #1 – Make everyone fully aware of the damage caused by slurs

Your executives are not likely to devote significant time and resources toward preventing slurs, labeling and derogatory language until they fully understand the economic damage these words can cause. Begin by working with your COO’s and CFO’s offices to develop a credible process for identifying and quantifying those workforce damages in dollars. It’s important to go beyond the obvious legal costs. And to also fully quantify the negative impacts that they have on productivity, team cohesion, retention, recruiting, diversity and employee stress. And should their usage at your firm become public, the dollar damage to your product brand image would also have to be included in the cost estimate.

Step #2 – Understand the value added by risk management prediction

Most corporate HR efforts in the area of harassment are focused on identifying and investigating events that have already occurred. However, after a slur has occurred, the damage has already been done. So instead, what is needed is a predictive process which reveals where these slurs are most likely to occur so that preventative actions can be taken in time.

Predicting and preventing risks (i.e. risk management) is a common practice on the business side of the firm. Most business functions long ago developed formal processes for predicting and preventing costly business events like fire, accidents, theft, weather events, and inventory spoilage. These risk management processes work because they don’t assume that negative events are random. Instead, they focus on developing algorithms and identifying precursors that reveal where, when and why these negative events occur. Unfortunately, HR treats racial, gender, national origin and religious slurs as if they are random events that occur equally across the organization. However, if you want to stop these events before they occur, a prevention component needs to be added to education, investigation, and punishment.

I’ve written in the past about how sexual harassment can be predicted, and the same model should be used here. Past harassment data is used to develop “heat maps” that highlight the departments, teams, the jobs and the employees where these slurs are most likely to occur. For example, when harassing slurs are publicly written as graffiti within a facility, they are most likely to be in restrooms and changing areas. So, constant monitoring and an immediate graffiti cleaning of those areas may help to prevent future harassment graffiti. And after each of the highest risk areas are identified, managers can then take extra proactive actions there.

Step #3 – Make it everyone’s responsibility to protect corporate values

During my extensive research on harassment, I have not found that simply having an HR policy against racial slurs will, by itself, have much of an impact. In part, that’s because attacking the problem with policy makes it appears that the problem is “owned” by HR. Instead, what I recommend is a shift in “ownership of the harassing language problem” to everyone in the workforce. It then becomes part of each employee’s responsibility and code of conduct to protect and support the company’s values and image as an employer.

In fact, Google employee James Damore was fired because his statements violated the company’s gender equality values. This broader expectation means that in addition to avoiding inappropriate workplace language, labeling, name-calling, and related behaviors; employees and managers have an additional obligation to discourage and immediately report such damaging behavior. And in some organizations, that prohibition would extend to an employee’s personal social media page where publicly revealed slurs covering protected groups would be prohibited (which occurred recently with the Philadelphia Police Department).

What harassing language should be limited?

A slur is defined as a form of insult. Even though a few labels used by employees might be well-intentioned, HR must instead treat all words and phrases that are meant to label or send a message as derogatory.

A slur can be used to show that the employees are not welcome (e.g. “go back home”) because of their national origin or race. Harassing language can also occur in the form of personal nicknames (e.g. “Shorty”). It can be hurtful to stereotypically label someone as being from a country (e.g. “the Mexican”), a religion (e.g. “the Moslem”) or a race (e.g. “the Asian guy”). Derogatory language can also be used when referring to individuals in other protected groups including gender, age, sexual preference, body type, and disability.

The secret is to avoid words and phrases that have a reasonable chance of offending an employee.

Outside the box actions for preventing harassing slurs in the workplace

It’s always important to have policies, education, and investigations. And after taking the above mentioned three foundation steps, there are many additional preventive actions you should consider. Rather than baby steps, what will be needed are several additional bold and outside the box approaches. And of course, many of these solutions are difficult to implement. However, in my view, the damage caused by harassing slurs is high enough to justify the application of all available brainpower and courage towards preventing all types of harassing and labeling language.

10 powerful actions for preventing verbal harassment

1. Assume that slurs are occurring

Don’t wait for a language incident to occur before you take action. Instead, start with the assumption that slurs and verbal harassment are occurring somewhere and take proactive action to identify those areas. HR and managers may not be fully aware of these slurs because of a completely ineffective harassment reporting processes. Or because they don’t periodically search their team’s corporate electronic communications for them. A key indicator of a harassing language problem may be a significant difference in the turnover rates between diverse and non-diverse employees on a team.

2. Kill any “freedom of speech” assumption

Make sure employees are aware that the US Constitution only prevents the government from interfering with your free speech. And that realistically, there is no free speech rights or private conversations within the corporate environment. Although, some may call the language that is expected “politically correct,” a more accurate term for it is “workplace appropriate language.”

3. Set a zero-tolerance level

Certain punishment is often an effective deterrent. So, if you want to prevent verbal harassment, an important step is to let employees know that even one single incident will be punished. Zero-tolerance punishment after investigation could range at different firms between a week’s automatic suspension up to immediate termination.

4. Make it easy to report harassing language

Knowing that a slur is likely to be reported immediately and acted on will deter most. Make the reporting of a slur or derogatory language easy by offering several reporting options, some of which are completely anonymous. When appropriate, make the complaining employee aware that action has been taken.

5. Begin education during onboarding

During onboarding make sure that every new hire and contractor is made aware of the company’s language expectations and punishments. Also, warn new hires that all communications on company equipment are monitored for business-appropriate language.

6. Focus your education and training

Every employee should be educated on the inappropriateness of and the damage caused by harassing language. However, managers should also use data to pinpoint work teams where harassment education needs to be more frequently repeated.

7. Provide a list of sensitive topic areas to avoid

It is problematic to provide an actual list of specific words or phrases that are forbidden. However, it is appropriate to highlight in your educational materials the topic areas that are covered by most slurs (race, nationality, citizenship status, religion, gender stereotypes, disabilities, etc.).

8. Make it easy to get guidance

Provide a website with frequently asked questions and answers related to slurs and harassment. If possible, also provide an anonymous line where employees can get live advice in this area.

9. Conduct civility surveys

Anonymous civility surveys reveal the degree to which teammates treat each other with respect. So, it makes sense to use these surveys at least once a year to identify low civility areas. Inappropriate language and disrespecting co-workers are common factors that reduce team civility scores.

10. Start at the top

Make sure that executives and managers know that the barriers (or the lack of barriers) they place on their language are likely to be copied by those under them. It’s also critical that each of your executives make their own team fully aware of the firm’s and their own lack of tolerance for slurs and harassment because eliminating inappropriate bad language starts at the top.

Even bolder prevention and identification actions to consider

The following additional harassing language reducing actions can be more controversial and difficult to implement.

Encourage the “would you say that in front of your grandmother” rule — In case of doubt, encourage employees to only use language they would use in front of their grandmother. And, to assume that everything they say and write will eventually be seen by their grandmother. Surprisingly this simple self-screening test can be quite effective.

Utilize post-exit interviews — You will under calculate the real costs of derogatory language until you realize that it causes turnover. And although you might expect departing employees to be candid during their standard exit interviews, the reality is that the departing employees fear of getting a bad reference may prevent many from being completely honest. Instead, have a third-party firm interview departed employees in target jobs after six months. And include a specific inquiry about derogatory language and harassment issues.

Identify and focus on the least powerful — It’s a mistake to assume that all employees have the same probability of being labeled and receiving slurs. Frequently, slurs and harassment are directed at the less powerful (e.g. new-hires, interns, temps, and diverse individuals). So, encourage managers to provide extra support for those employees that are most likely to be harassed. And make it easy for them to report every incident.

Conduct periodic language searches — Because the information on all company-owned messaging channels is, in fact, company property, it is appropriate and even desirable to periodically search each communication channel for inappropriate words, phrases or language. And hopefully, vendors that already have intelligent software that helps employees avoid gender-sensitive language will soon develop “Do you really want to say that” software that alerts an employee in real-time when a word or phrase they are about to use in an electronic message may be considered insulting, discriminatory or harassing.

Utilize superknower employees — In most workgroups there are what are known as “superknowers.” They are well-connected employees that for some reason make it their business to know everything that’s informally going on within a group. So, it makes sense to identify them and to use them anonymously, when appropriate to identify potential harassment problem areas.

Identify the jokers — It is not uncommon for a significant percentage of these slurs to occur as part of a joke or humorous story. So, encourage your managers to identify frequent jokers within their team. And then to individually remind them of your expectations, and to avoid all jokes or stories that refer even slightly to those in protected groups.

Make customers aware — It’s important to also shield employees from slurs that come from customers and vendors. So, when feasible, make customers fully aware that inappropriate language will not be tolerated.

Utilize mystery shoppers — Where feasible, use mystery shoppers to identify language issues in public areas. And if you really want to see if your harassment reporting process is working, consider testing your system by periodically having a designated employee purposefully use a questionable but not clearly outlawed word or phrase in order to see if it gets reported.

Make it part of performance appraisal — if you really want managers and employees to avoid harassing language. Add a performance appraisal assessment factor that covers harassment, the civility of their language and how they treat other employees with respect. Also, make “maintains a civil and respectful team environment” part of a manager’s promotion criteria.

Low morale may be an indicator of harassing language — Problems with recruiting and retention can be key indicators that a team has harassment issues. However, it’s also important to look for indirect indicators that harassment may be occurring in a group. Those indirect indicators might include low 360° survey results, a high employee transfer-out rate and a low percentage of employee referrals.

Encourage employees to improve their documentation – despite the potential legal issues. In the worst cases, consider making it clear to a harassed employee that subtly pushing the record button on their mobile phone during a conversation may dramatically strengthen their case that they have been subject to harassing language.

Final thoughts

Whenever there is a heightened sensitivity about a current issue, it makes sense for corporate leaders to take a second look about how the company handles it. And that is especially true in this case for harassing language and derogatory slurs. Unfortunately, historically most managers have paid little attention to the problem. However, I have found that their interest in the issue can be peaked rapidly, once managers realize that “words” hurt not only the individual but also their work outputs because verbally harassed employees produce less, make more errors, use more sick days and completely stop innovating.

Author’s note: If this article stimulated your thinking and provided you with actionable tips. Please take a minute to follow or connect with Dr. Sullivan on LinkedIn and to subscribe to TLNT Daily


About Dr John Sullivan

Dr John Sullivan is an internationally known HR thought-leader from the Silicon Valley who specializes in providing bold and high business impact; strategic Talent Management solutions to large corporations.

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