Difficult Employee When Corrected Charges Racism

Question to Ask the Workplace Doctors about how do I handle a difficult employee who is creating a hostile work environment?
I have an employee that is constantly saying the company is racist. This particular employee is not a good performer and is making a hostile work environment! Every time this particular person is written up for various infractions, they scream racism. Everyone is disciplined fairly. It is not fair to everyone else who follows the rules. HR will do nothing! How can I handle this employee and make this a positive experience for everyone else in the department?

Signed Discipline’s Fair

Dear Discipline’s Fair:

You are right to seek advice when charged with racism. However unjust you think is the charge, it is wise for you to treat the accusation seriously. Therefore I have several questions for you before suggesting answers to you positively-put question of “How can I handle this employee and make this a positive experience for everyone else in the department?” You, as supervisor or manager, have a responsibility to handle such a situation, but it is not just your responsibility and you were wise to report it. Most likely there have been other things going on that have contributed to this employee not being a good performer and to making a hostile work environment! I will address that once I have directed you attention to the charge itself.

If your workplace is large enough to have a Human Relations Office, it likely has a written policy about discrimination, acts and words that cause a hostile environment and how such accusations will be treated. Have you accessed this? Has your organization trained you and others as to what constitutes racist language and acts? If you are in a supervisory/management position, have you have been informed of such a policy? Has your workplace conducted training about discrimination as to what acts and words cause a hostile environment and how such accusations will be treated?

The process of how you go about this is important. From what you say, you have reported it, but Human Resources “will do nothing.” I assume that you must have reported being accused of racism more than once to conclude the HR will do nothing. Did you spell out the specific times this individual was written up and the reason for that? Did you include the language he/she used in “screaming racism”? Did you seek advice on how to handle it when that person charged racism? Was your report in writing? Might someone from HR have spoken with the individual who was written up and made the charge? Did you inform your superior about the poor performance of this individual, of your written reprimands and that employee’s angry reaction?

I repeat that it is your company’s responsibility to treat such a charge seriously, and if this charge is brought to the EEO, that organization will be concerned if it is ignored. Therefore, you or the supervisor, who has made the write-up and was subsequently the target of a scream of racism, should take care to log the details of what occurred. Just as process is considered important in the steps to discipline and deciding how this individual will be reprimanded, re-trained and/or fired, it is equally important in resolving a charge of racism. If you have not done so already, it would be wise to prepare a dated account of what has transpired and how you handled it including dates of when, where, what, and who were involved and observed the misbehavior. Include the actual language used. But even before that account is complete, you should inform HR that of the most recent accusation of racism and request an investigation. In your request for an investigation, it may be wise to advise HR that you know a workplace is responsible to take reasonable steps to resolve and prevent such charges.

HR may then to decide if this individual has valid reasons for such a charge; it will likely interview all parties within your workplace. And it might separate the parties involved, both the individual who made the charge and the ones accused. Or it might take a less aggressive approach. You should get their advice about how to deal with this individual. She/he should be counseled and understand that such an accusation if false will not be tolerated.

Now you are confronted with answering the most important aspect of your question—that is, how to “make this a positive experience for everyone else in the department?” What is it that most likely has contributed to this employee not being a good performer and to making a hostile work environment! Let’s call that individual, Kim. Was Kim capable when hired? Was Kim trained? I assume Kim is of a different race than others in the work group? Are job descriptions clear and interaction with coworkers spelled out? How long has Kim been employed? Have you or someone helped the work group to communicate effectively as to who does what, when, how and why? Have do and don’t rules been collaboratively made about individual responsibilities, about how instructions are made and jobs are approved? –In short, does your work group function as a team? Do you have skull sessions on your goals and performance? Do you have huddles to facilitate each other’s tasks? Do you talk about how you talk to each other and about what to do when that talk has turned to gossip about each other and the workplace? Have you talked frankly as a work group with Kim, not talked about Kim, but have talked with Kim—have taken time out as a group to talk with Kim? The goal of being an effective work group means hearing and voicing what’s troubling and what’s wanted by all concerned.

I know my list of questions is long, but engaging your work group in answering such questions is probably the most effective way to confront what has been going on or has been lacking and has consequently provoked the charge of racism. Do these thoughts from a distance ring true or at least prompt you to rethink and re-frame how you might approach your central question? Feel free to compare it with other advice you get and update us about what you do. Working together with hands, head, and heart takes and makes big WEGOS.-
Bill Gorden