'I'm Puerto Rican—I'd Be Great at Selling Drugs'; 'Not Married? She Must Be a Lesbian'

ABC's new comedy "Work It" has offended Latinos, LGBT people, TV critics and viewers. How can a company use its employee-resource groups, diversity councils and clarity of values to prevent multicultural missteps?

By Barbara Frankel


Straight men in dresses using urinals. Comments such as "I'm Puerto Rican—I'd be great at selling drugs" and "No, she's not married. She must be a lesbian."

What was ABC thinking when it allowed its new comedy "Work It" to air Tuesday night? The show, whose premise is that two unemployed straight men dress as women to get jobs as pharmaceutical sales reps, had dismal ratings. It has been dubbed by gawker.com as the "worst television show in history." It has been vociferously attacked by LGBT and Latino organizations, as well as every television critic we can find.

What lessons should ABC and other corporations have learned in cultural competence from their employee-resource groups, diversity councils and diverse senior leadership to avoid such missteps?

Ironically, ABC, owned by The Walt Disney Company, one of DiversityInc's 25 Noteworthy Companies, has long been heralded for the diversity of characters on its shows in terms of race/ethnicity, orientation and disability. Joe Solmonese, president of the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), noted this in a statement from GLAAD demanding this show be cancelled:

"As a network with a record of positive portrayals of LGBT people, ABC should know better than to air this offensive program that even has the potential to jeopardize the safety of transgender people," he said. ABC has not released a statement on the criticisms of the show.

Lesson No. 1: Vet Your Content With Your ERGs

Multicultural missteps are nothing new, and many companies have faced the wrath of consumers and critics. The best way to avoid them is to use employee-resource groups as focus groups to vet content with people from these underrepresented groups. ABC's LGBT, Latino and women's employee-resource groups would have raised red flags right away about this content and could have helped ABC retool the show to make it less offensive—or pushed to scrap it altogether.

The men in this show are portrayed as bumbling, macho stereotypes, and the women are stupid and insipid. The Puerto Rican drug comment (one of the two men is Puerto Rican) has organizations from the National Institute for Latino Policy to the Latino Leadership Institute infuriated. The Human Rights Campaign and GLAAD took out a full-page ad in Daily Variety asking ABC to cancel the show, primarily because of the impact it will have on transgender women, who face enough difficulties being accepted in mainstream America.

An employee-resource group, especially one whose leaders are trusted to meet regularly with senior management, would have pointed out how offensive these stereotypes are and how dangerous they are to the corporate reputation.

Lesson No. 2: Make Sure Your Senior Management Reflects the Population

Latinos are now more than 16 percent of the U.S. population, and that increases each year. LGBT people are estimated at 10 percent, and when you include their allies, that percentage skyrockets. Why alienate two such important consumer bases?

Companies whose senior management is diverse in terms of race/ethnicity, gender, orientation and disability have a different type of sensibility at the top. There is someone to say, "Whoa! Let's put on the brakes. Have you considered the ramifications to MY community?"

Our research and DiversityInc Top 50 data shows that formal, cross-cultural mentoring is the most demonstrable way to bring diversity to the upper ranks. Other methods of including diversity in formal succession planning include requiring diverse slates and cultural-competency training for candidates.

Lesson No. 3:  Diversity Councils and CEOs Set Clearly-Stated Values and Hold People Accountable

A senior executive diversity council, led by the CEO, will hold executives accountable, primarily through compensation, for diversity results. They also will hold executives accountable for diversity missteps and for the marketplace consequences of those. They state their values clearly and consistently and never waver from them.

As this Ask the White Guy column by Luke Visconti demonstrates, clarity of values is critical from the start. When something goes wrong, as it did in the Tennessee chamber of commerce supporting an anti-LGBT law, several companies involved communicated immediately and clearly that they objected to this proposal and were disassociating themselves from the chamber activities.

Having a culture of inclusion in the workplace is important. But if that real belief in inclusion isn't clearly communicated and demonstrated by external actions, it will fail to resonate with your constituents—employees, customers, shareholders and suppliers.

Here's a roundup of what's been said about this show:

The National Institute for Latino Policy released a statement Jan. 4 on the imagery of Puerto Ricans in "Work It." The NYC Latino Politics and Latino Leadership Institute both are calling Latinos to action: Julio Pabon, the blog's author, picketed ABC's offices with other Latinos.

GLAAD and HRC Tell ABC That 'Work It' Will Harm Transgender People

GLAAD and HRC ran a full-page ad in Daily Variety in December protesting the show prior to its premiere for its representation of cross-dressing and its misrepresentation of transgender people.

ABC's Work It Unnecessarily Injurious to Transgender Americans

HRC President Joe Solmonese and GLAAD Acting President Mike Thompson published a post expressing that ABC should not air the "comedy."

"Work It" Drawing Criticism from LGBT Organizations

National Center for Lesbian Rights provides a summary of the "Work It" pre-launch controversy and links to more information about the cause.

ABC's "Work It" should be Fired Immediately

National Women's Law Center comments on the legal inaccuracies of "Work It" and its offensiveness to several groups, including transgender people, women and Latinos.

LGBT Groups Condemn ABC Show Work It; Say Work It Doesn't Work!

Transgender Law Center protested "Work It" before its premiere, noting the show "validates outdated gender-norms and expectations."

Click here to watch a video clip of the show.

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