HR Topics

Diversity Is Under Fire in Charged Political Climate

Kathy Gurchiek By Kathy Gurchiek November 16, 2017

​A ban on transgender individuals serving in the U.S. military. Legislation that would favor English-speaking immigrants who are financially stable. An executive order that would impose a travel ban on people from certain countries from entering the U.S. A review by the U.S. Department of Justice of the affirmative action policies of colleges that are "deemed to discriminate against white applicants."

Actions such as these by the current presidential administration signal a new political era where employees feel emboldened to express exclusionary views about different demographic groups, leading to escalating tensions in the workplace and diversity dilemmas in organizations, said Cindy-Ann Thomas. She is a principal at Littler in Charlotte, N.C., where she co-chairs the firm's Equal Employment Opportunity and Diversity Practice Group. 

"The filters are off and … political correctness is now regarded as stupid or silly," Thomas observed.

[SHRM members-only toolkit: How to Build a Diversity Initiative from the Ground Up]

However, including people from diverse groups in your organization is not stupid or silly, Thomas added. She and Melodie Craft, a shareholder at Littler in Dallas, spoke at a session titled Diversity Under Fire: Guarding Your Company's D&I Efforts Within Our Evolving Political Climate at the recent Society for Human Resource Management 2017 Diversity & Inclusion Conference & Exposition.

They offered the following best practices for navigating the challenges to diversity and inclusion (D&I) in today's workplace:

  • Review—and possibly amend—your organization's social media policies so that they don't unlawfully restrict employees' conversations. Be mindful of state laws and the National Labor Relations Act, which gives employees the right to engage in protected concerted activity—to discuss work and workplace conditions—regardless of whether your organization is unionized.

Be aware, too, that state laws in several jurisdictions—California, Colorado and Louisiana—prohibit employers from adopting any policy, rule or regulation that forbids or prevents employees from participating in politics.

  • Proceed cautiously when taking adverse action against employees engaging in protests and marches. Under federal law, private employers may discipline an employee who does so, but there are some states—California, Louisiana, New York, South Carolina and Utah—that prohibit employers from taking adverse action against employees because of their legal, off-the-clock activities. Connecticut goes further, extending First Amendment protection to employees of private employers.
  • Be reasonable about your ability to moderate political speech, treat social media posts that possibly violate anti-harassment policies on a case-by-case basis, and consult with counsel before disciplining or terminating an employee.

Federal regulators in 2016 found that an employee policy at Chipotle that prohibited workers from discussing politics or religion in public violated labor law.

Political discourse is unavoidable, but clarify expectations of civility and respect and not using company resources—such as wearing a uniform or driving a company vehicle—while engaged in personal activities.

  • Consider what "peaceful protest" means for your organization.

"You've got to define what that means for your organization, train [managers and employees] on it, be upfront and—here's the key—be consistent," Craft said. "Where I see employers being sued … it's because the employer had a policy that wasn't as well-defined as one would hope."

A new employee benefit Craft and Thomas are seeing is paid time off to participate in social justice rallies, such as some companies giving employees time off to attend pro-immigration rallies if they want to go.

  • Stay neutral on the issue when meting out discipline and distinguish between coaching opportunities and disciplinary actions.

Do not, for example, discipline an employee for participating in a rally while refraining to discipline an employee for taking part in a protest advocating the opposite viewpoint.

"You cannot let a bunch of different 'sheriffs' … run their departments according to their own [political] view," Thomas said.

Tamara Rasberry, SHRM-CP, HR manager at the National Community Reinvestment Coalition in Washington, D.C., appreciated the reminder to HR to remain consistent.

"You have to look at are you treating all the employees the same way" when it comes to their political activities and views, she noted. "You know that as an HR person, but you have to still be mindful" of it during this politically charged time.

Many D&I professionals are worried that some businesses might take advantage of relaxed regulations to scale back their diversity efforts, SHRM Online has reported.

Thomas and Craft urged HR professionals to strengthen their organization's D&I strategies and create opportunities to build connections among diverse groups.

"Diversity and diversity training has a lot of baggage associated with it. 'Diversity' is a label that is being met with a lot of rolled eyes in the workplace," Thomas said. She and Craft pointed to employees' tweets, such as one that read "So SICK of all the diversity B*S* at our company" and others that maligned various racial and ethnic groups for "taking our jobs."

Faced with such attitudes, HR may want to consider rebranding D&I efforts as civility awareness, professionalism training or protect-our-core-values training, Thomas suggested.

D&I can be challenging at a time when the backlash against political correctness has seeped over into employee resource groups (ERGs), and some workers see diversity initiatives as a threat.

Thomas and Craft made the following ERG recommendations available following the session:

  • Have written guidelines for ERGs established in advance.
  • Do not arbitrarily deny an application for the formation of an ERG.
  • Ensure that there is a business purpose to each ERG and that an applicant group can demonstrate that purpose.
  • Ensure that membership is voluntary and open to all employees.

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