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Diversity Tips

Inappropriate comments

People often get confused about the difference between the type of jokes and comments that are O.K. outside of work but may not be appropriate in the workplace.

The boundaries between home and work often get blurred, especially if we work in a close knit team or remote location. A close knit team can be very supportive and develop strong personal relationships. Jokes and banter may help the working day go more smoothly and can reduce stress and tension between colleagues.

No one wants to be called a ‘killjoy’ – so often if risky jokes or comments are made, it can be difficult to draw the line and easier to join in or ignore them rather than risk upsetting the team dynamics.

The problem is, if we are not clear about what is O.K. and what is not O.K., we may offend others or bottle up our hurt feelings. This, in turn, can affect our working relationships and ultimately our own performance at work.

It is important to recognise the boundaries between home and work and understand what can potentially cause offence. We don’t always know if someone’s son or daughter is gay, if they have a disabled relative or what the ethnic origin of their partner may be.

Managers can take the lead in providing a forum for discussing jokes, language and swearing in the workplace and enable the team to agree some ground rules. This can prevent potential bullying and harassment complaints and create a positive and inclusive working environment.

Courageous Conversations

Research has shown that nipping inappropriate comments or behaviour in the bud is the best way of preventing bullying and harassment. We all have a  responsibility for ensuring there is a safe working environment and for creating a culture that supports dignity and respect.

Creating an inclusive culture often means we have to be prepared to challenge inappropriate behaviour or comments – sometimes at meetings with colleagues or in more informal gatherings.

Experience tells us that we are often reluctant to have these ‘courageous conversations’ with colleagues or staff. We fear there may be a backlash or that we may become the target for such comments and jokes. Either way we step back from what we see as potential ‘conflict’ rather than broach the issue. Often the long term benefits of having such a conversation outweigh the disadvantages. In other words – short term pain for long term gain.

However if we reframe the situation and instead of conflict see it as an opportunity to explain how we feel about such comments we can move towards a win-win situation. This simple 3 step approach of describing the behaviour – saying how we feel about it and what needs to change in future – gives us a framework for managing the situation without becoming personal or judgemental.  It is clear, direct and when delivered in a serious tone can be very effective.

As a manager we can set an example to others and support staff who are feeling undermined by colleagues or even another manager. We can use this technique in person, by phone or email to let the other person know the impact of their behaviour or comments. People are often surprised and disarmed by such direct and honest feedback and the realisation that their comments have caused offence.

Getting the Diversity Message Across

Organisations can often feel as though they are treading on eggshells when they talk about diversity issues. Research has shown that the best way of getting the diversity message across is by sharing stories and real life scenarios.

Managers can lead by example and share their own diversity stories with staff and colleagues and encourage their staff to do likewise. We can also use scenarios to discuss ‘sensitive issues’ by retelling a situation which is one step removed from the live issue or the organisation. Creating a parallel situation enables us to open up and discuss the issues in a dispassionate way without making a judgement or apportioning blame.

We can talk about what we might do or say in such a situation and then relate it back to our own dilemma or issue. This encourages discussion about diversity, opens up opportunities for people to share their views and test out ways of dealing with situations in a safe environment. This builds confidence in dealing with issues before they arise.

Training in Diversity and Equality

With thanks to Virginia Donovan for contributing this Diversity Tips article

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