Inspiring Leadership with Diversity, Inclusion & Cultural Competence

By Leah Smiley

Every employer hopes it doesn’t happen to them– but workplace nooses are on the rise. Not only is it a workplace distraction– decreasing productivity, fostering division, and breeding fear– but it is also a public relations black eye for your corporate image and your diversity efforts.

Harassment, retaliation for discrimination complaints, and resistance to diversity training, are just some of the reasons why hangman’s nooses have been on the rise.

Within the last 30-days alone, nooses have been founded at the Siemens Plant in New Jersey and the Browns Ferry Nuclear Plant in Alabama, a subsidiary of the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA). This is the 5th noose found at or near a TVA facility. Some people have insinuated that blacks are hanging the nooses themselves in order to sue their employers. But the mere history of nooses, indicates that blacks are targeted as victims and not perpetrators. Between 1882 and 1920, a black person was lynched every two or three days in the U.S. Hence, blaming a black employee for the symbol of racial hatred and unrest is not advised.

Nooses are intended to be offensive, intimidating, and even funny to some. They are used as a reminder to people of color that if you step out of line, you will face certain punishment, even death. We have seen a decrease in nooses since the 1960’s, but since 2001, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission says it has filed 30 cases in federal court alleging workplace harassment involving nooses.

The first thing to understand is that finding a noose is NOT an isolated incident. If the employer does not investigate or take swift and appropriate action, the likelihood of finding another noose increases exponentially. This also increases your liability in a discrimination and/or harassment claim.

Second, finding a noose is not limited to workers in the South, or to plants and locker rooms. There are dozens of documented cases where nooses were found in office settings, and cities with lots of diversity. For example, in December 2011, a New York city parks employee hung a black doll at the desk of a co-worker at the Bronx headquarters. A month later, the worker, who hung the noose as a joke, was arrested and suspended without pay. Nevertheless, the affected employee is suing the City.

A noose alone usually isn’t sufficient evidence of employment discrimination; it needs to be accompanied by other racially biased practices to be considered “hate speech” or a violation of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. While North Carolina, New York, Louisiana and California passed laws explicitly banning the public display of nooses over the last couple years, these laws also stipulate that there must be an “intent to intimidate.” Additionally, the plaintiff has to demonstrate that the employer didn’t do enough to respond to the problem.

The first line of defense is your offense. Be more proactive in ensuring that workers understand why they are employees in the first place: to help achieve organizational goals. That is the reason for diversity and why each highly qualified person is needed at your place of business. Individual personal views must take a back seat to the common, shared vision. All are valued, and all are necessary. This inclusive approach is not only motivational, but it is also effective in eliminating the perception of bias, unfairness, and inequity.

Nevertheless, if all else fails, employers should launch an immediate investigation into the hanging noose. If an offender is found, whether a supervisor or employee, you must take punitive actions. For example, suspension without pay, demotion, and/or termination will send a strong message that this type of “resistance” or “retaliation” against workers of color will not be tolerated.

You should also redistribute your clearly written policies pertaining to discrimination, harassment, and retaliation. The policy should include specific examples of unlawful behavior, specify your confidential complaint procedure, guarantee no retaliation, and describe sanctions for offenders.

Finally, you should follow-up to ensure that no further adverse actions are being imposed on the affected groups. For example, if a favorite supervisor was suspended, are other workers taking out their anger and frustration on the victim(s)? If so, you may want to provide training or counseling.

Don’t let a noose “surprise” you. Learn as much as you can about the attitudes and perceptions of your employees– not just in the headquarters, but also in the field offices. A cultural climate audit is a great place to start.

Additionally, you can also take classes, listen to webinars, participate in conferences, and read as much as you can about current diversity challenges and best practices. After all, being “surprised” is not a good excuse for a hanging noose in the workplace.

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