by Bob Lewis

Uncomfortable Conversations

Sep 13, 2010
IT Leadership

Bigotry is worse than ugly. It makes your teams less effective.

“I am not a vegetarian because I love animals; I’m a vegetarian because I hate plants.”

– A. Whitney Brown

Pardon me while I take a minute to moralize.

Not really. As regular readers know, Keep the Joint Running isn’t a forum for moral advocacy, for two reasons.

The first is credentials. I have no basis, other than my upbringing and personal biases, for promoting one moral code or system of ethics over any other. Any ethical position I might take would have all the public credibility of the political positions taken by actors and musicians.

The second reason is irrelevancy. Business, according to the official voices of business (organizations such as the Business Roundtable and U.S. Chamber of Commerce) is intrinsically amoral.

(Not immoral. Amoral.) That isn’t what they say, of course.

But they’ve established that the sole responsibility of business management is to maximize shareholder value. In case you haven’t cracked the code, that’s ManagementSpeak for “If it’s legal and helps increase the price of a share of stock, business management is obligated to do it.”

That’s a mighty thin underlayment on which to lay a code of ethics.

KJR is about helping you succeed in your career, and about helping you lead a successful organization. It’s in that spirit, on this Monday following the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, that I suggest you take a few minutes to meet with any employee who might be perceived by any other employee to be a Muslim.

Why single them out? Because organizations run on trust and yours isn’t immune to the unfortunate increase in religious bigotry directed toward practitioners of Islam here in the U.S.A.

Don’t believe this bigotry exists? A recent Time poll revealed that nearly a third of the country thinks Muslims should be barred from running for president and nearly that many think they should be barred from the Supreme Court.

Your organization isn’t immune, and no matter what your personal beliefs, ethical code and religious preferences, you have a fiduciary responsibility to the company’s shareholders (inspiring, eh?) to prevent bigotry from interfering with its functioning.

Distrust among team members, whatever the reason, interferes with the smooth flow of work — a phenomenon called (in the KJR Manifesto at least) the “process distrust loop.”

It works like this: Work flows from one team member to the next. With distrust, the recipient is more likely to find fault, rejecting the work and either sending it back or redoing it.

This doesn’t just slow down the process. It also creates or exacerbates resentment in both parties, increasing distrust and the likelihood of a recurrence.

It’s bad enough when distrust is limited to two individuals. It’s worse when the usual business stereotypes are involved (bean-counters, HR bureaucrats, nerds and geeks, pointy-haired bosses and so on) because now the distrust involves a much larger population, and contributes to organizational siloes besides.

Layer on a racial, ethnic, cultural or religious dimension, though, and the situation can get way out of hand.

So take the time for a brief conversation with every likely target of this bigotry to let them know you’re concerned about it, consider it unacceptable, and want to make sure they don’t have to deal with it in their work environment. (If you don’t consider it unacceptable, now would be the time to learn how to lie convincingly.)

Make it clear their religious preferences aren’t your business, and aren’t the issue. It’s that bigoted employees are likely to draw conclusions based on appearance, and act inappropriately as a consequence. If that happens, you want to know about it immediately.

While you’re at it, keep your ears open for expressions of bigotry throughout the organization, jokes included. Whether you challenge them publicly or privately depends how loud and overt they are.

But you must challenge them. (Sample phrasing: “You can be any kind of jerk you want on your own time. Here in the office there are some kinds of jerk you aren’t allowed to be and this is one of them.”)

Yes, it will be awkward. Yes, you should be allowed to focus on the company’s technology strategy. And anyway, isn’t this something HR ought to be taking care of?

Well, yes. HR ought to be taking care of this. Too. If it’s leading the charge, so much the better.

Regardless, its role is complementary to the one you play. What it is: If anyone in your organization complains about being the target of bigotry, HR has specific procedures and protocols for dealing with this sort of thing. Make use of them — don’t improvise.

That doesn’t let you off the hook. In the end, ensuring team dynamics are constructive is your job.

You can call it Someone Else’s Problem.

But you can’t make it someone else’s problem.

Bob Lewis is president of IT Catalysts, a consultancy focused on IT organizational effectiveness, business/IT integration, and helping organizations become more adept at designed, planned change.