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“Whites Only” Water Fountains and Threats to Hang Employees—What Was This Manager Thinking?

Posted on: June 12th, 2014 | Category: Employee Relations, HR Training Programs, Human Resources, Our Blog

workplace discrimination by managersA shocking news story exploded last week in the media that involved out-and-out racial discrimination and harassment accusations at a cotton warehouse in Memphis Tennessee. A white supervisor threatened to hang an African-American employee for drinking water from a fountain labeled “white people”. This kind of discriminatory behavior had been going on for months, according to the employee, who recorded incidents on his cell phone as evidence. He was not the only employee to come forward about this kind of abusive behavior by the manager.

The owner of the cotton company was understandably dumbfounded by the accusations and was unaware of any racism at work. His estimate is that the warehouse employees are 90% black. “If I heard it, I would have stopped it immediately,” he said recently to a CNN reporter covering the story.

Do you know what your managers are doing in your workplace?

How is this kind of open workplace harassment even possible in America in 2014? While it is too soon to speculate on this particular case, it isn’t too soon for business owners to take stock of their management teams and the kinds of language they use—not to mention the work climates they promote.

We wrote earlier this year on workplace bullying between co-workers and feel just as strongly about harassment and intimidation of any kind that comes from managers. “Your managers are the face of your company to your employees. What they say and do can often feel like it comes directly from the company owners, even when it doesn’t,” says Tina Hamilton, PHR, president of myHR Partner. “It is imperative that you know how your employees are treated by those who supervise them.”

In the case of the cotton company, the managers were all brought in by an outside staffing service and not directly hired by the cotton company itself, and the supervisor was fired after an investigation. “It doesn’t matter if you personally selected your managers or not, you are responsible for making sure they are treating your employees with respect and dignity, and certainly within all federal, state and local laws and regulations,” says Hamilton. “Develop a responsible management team. Keep tabs on them. Talk to them. Listen to the people who work for them. And, most importantly, lead by example.”

Effective ways to promote a company culture where bullying and harassment won’t go unchecked:

  • Make sure your managers are well trained. Educate them so they won’t create a hostile work environment, and so that they can even play a pivotal role in defending against bullying behaviors among co-workers. Annual or periodic harassment training is recommended and in states like California, required.
  • Be clear about not tolerating any kind of harassment. Have your policies against discrimination and harassment in writing and signed by each manager and employee. Keep your policies updated and easy to locate by all of your employees.
  • Lead with empathy and compassion. Many employees who feel scared of or bullied by their managers are not comfortable telling the top brass about it. Since not all acts of bullying are conspicuous, you could easily believe that not hearing any complaints means there are no problems. Show you care about all your employees and encourage them to come forward when problems arise outside of the your field of view.
  • Look for clues as to why employees are acting strangely when the do. Often what you see as an employer is only part of the larger picture, only a particular action or effect. In real life, real people have many facets to their lives, both professionally and personally. If you can find out what is behind bad or fearful behavior, many times you can take effective steps to remedy a troublesome situation.

Whether it’s training, a clear harassment policy or other workplace harassment deterrents, we’ve got you covered.

Today’s employers have to be proactive to avoid workplace violence, harassment law violations and employee dissatisfaction. It takes a strategic, broad approach to maintain a positive, productive and profitable workforce. Our team of HR experts team of HR experts is here to help you achieve your workforce goals. Email us, or call us at 610-443-0119 to discuss how myHR Partner training and myHR DirectLink Services can help your business.

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