Can You Prevent a 'Todd Akin' Moment at Your Organization?

You have the right to your opinion but not to destroy other people's productivity or conflict with the values of your employer.

We can't control the people who work for us, as Republican leaders learned this week after Rep. Todd Akin's now-infamous inaccurate remark that it's extremely rare for rape victims to get pregnant.

Despite entreaties from GOP leaders, including presumptive vice-presidential nominee Rep. Paul Ryan, Akin is continuing his run for the Missouri Senate seat. And all this focus on what he said, his alleged sources of information and the backfighting in the party are proving a negative distraction for the Republican national convention in Tampa next week.

The greater organizational issues one can take away from this are both of a preventative and a reactive nature. From a preventative perspective, how can an organization create a culture of inclusion and respect so people do not feel they can make blatant—and erroneous—statements that are harmful to others? And once a statement is made or action taken, what are the legal and ethical ways to respond? How do you prevent negative stereotypes from seriously impacting productivity?

Without proactive efforts to create an inclusive culture, organizations run the risk of permitting inaccurate stereotypes to flourish, which hampers engagement and productivity. Dr. Claude Steele spoke about this to a DiversityInc audience, highlighting stereotype threat and how it impedes talent development for people from underrepresented groups. [Scroll down to watch the video.]

What's Legal?

DiversityInc legal columnist Bob Gregg, who specializes in discrimination law, says our laws encourage the ability to have different viewpoints. "We recognize that if we have people from so many races and religions, all these differences create frictions. We address our differences with laws as opposed to guns and bullets … Our policies have to be flexible enough to allow difference but not to allow discrimination."

Many of these statements are voiced as "religious beliefs." In the private sector, the Title VII Civil Rights Act of 1964 guarantees that employees cannot be discriminated against because of religious beliefs. Employees can believe whatever they choose but cannot take actions that violate a company's policy. However, the company must be very clear in its communications on the policy.

AT&T, No. 4 in The 2012 DiversityInc Top 50 Companies for Diversity list, ran up against this issue in 2004. The company had adopted a diversity policy requiring its employees to "value the differences" in all employees. A Christian employee, who said he believed that being gay is a sin, requested clarification on the policy and did not receive it. He then refused to sign the policy and was fired. He sued for religious discrimination and won because, according to Gregg, "AT&T failed to accommodate his religious beliefs by failing to provide an explanation and ordering him to sign the policy."

But in another 2004 religious-discrimination lawsuit against Cox Communications, No. 25 in the DiversityInc Top 50, the outcome was quite different, says Gregg. A supervisor was fired for violating the anti-harassment policy (which had been clearly explained) when he told a lesbian employee during an evaluation that being a lesbian was a sin and that he would pray about her sexual orientation. The court found that the behavior violated a reasonable company policy, and the firing was upheld.

"Our policies should not prohibit beliefs; they should focus on behaviors. If it's not a matter of public concern, a religious belief or something protected by the whistleblower law, a company can say that if a person doesn't go along with company values, they can work elsewhere," Gregg says, adding that it also depends on the person's job. A vice president of HR, for example, would have more at stake for making a comment perceived as biased than a file clerk. It also matters whether the comment was made on company or personal time, he says.

Can You Prevent These Incidents? 

From these cases, it's obvious that an organization must communicate its values clearly—and that those values must emanate from the top.

DiversityInc Top 50 companies all have consistent diversity and inclusion policies and statements from the CEO on their websites supporting them. In almost all of these companies, the mission statement also includes a diversity component.

Organizationally, it's important to engage employees "whose thoughts around their personal values may differ from corporate values," says Dr. Walter McCollum, senior director of Organizational Development at Sodexo, No. 2 in the DiversityInc Top 50. Dr. McCollum, who will be the luncheon speaker at DiversityInc's Sept. 13 event on "Managing Relationships Between HR & Diversity Departments," says it's critical to recognize the interplay between departments, sub-units and identity groups.

"By paying attention to the impact of actions on different populations, we make sure we account for key aspects of the system, and, therefore, create comprehensive and lasting change. Attending to diversity increases the likelihood that a change process will benefit the system as a whole along with its many parts," he says.

An essential way to do that is through the use of resource groups, which are a major source of cultural education in an organization and a conduit between mid- and low-level employees and senior executives. All of the DiversityInc Top 50 companies use their resource groups for these purposes, and they make sure the groups are inclusive—so anyone can join, even if they are not of the direct "affinity" of the group. That increases the ability to reach those who have different views, as does mandatory diversity training for the workforce, which 66 percent of the DiversityInc Top 50 has.

Corporations don't have power over freedom of thought or speech. But companies with clear communications and diversity-management initiatives in place are better equipped for the legal and organizational challenges of dealing with those whose views collide with corporate values.

--Barbara Frankel

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