A Cautionary Tale for Managers: Your Workplace is Not a Talk Show

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Former cable news anchor Rick Sanchez, and radio talk show hosts Dr. Laura Schlesinger and Don Imus have a lot in common. All three lost (Sanchez and Imus) or surrendered (Schlesinger) their broadcasting jobs in the wake of hurtful, mean-spirited comments.

Schlesinger and Imus made derogatory racial comments on their radio shows. Sanchez hurled demeaning religious remarks while being interviewed on a satellite radio program.

What are the boundaries of acceptable behavior? Dr. Laura asserted that she would leave her program so she could exercise her constitutional First Amendment rights. However, those who would see this as a free speech issue miss the point.

Firestorm of protest

What actually happened: The remarks by Sanchez, Schlesinger and Imus set off a firestorm of public protest and revulsion. In each case, employers concluded that, had these broadcasters remained in their spots, their corporate brands would be tainted by association. While Sanchez, Schlesinger, and Imus each apologized, the damage could not be immediately repaired.

Yet, had any of them worked for different employers appealing to audiences that would have tolerated their speech, it’s possible they could have remained in their jobs – or even seen their ratings soar from the controversy.

Their fates were sealed not only by their outrageous remarks, but also because their contagion quickly spread and stuck in the public consciousness. Virtually every news outlet and social media obsessed over their every word.

Sadly, we live in highly charged times – politically, culturally, economically, and socially. Today’s rhetoric is often raw, divisive, and mean spirited. Comments, jokes, and diatribes about Muslims, gays and lesbians, African-Americans, and other groups rapidly circulate the airwaves and the Internet.

While much of this speech may be protected by our Constitution, there are limits as well as consequences. What happened to Imus, Schlesinger, and Sanchez as employees is a cautionary tale for workplaces and workers everywhere. It’s easy and common for us to join groups with people who see the world as we do. We can say a lot that we think is private, and just for us. But when what we say or do becomes public and enters our workplaces, it can boomerang right back to our jobs, where the rules are starkly different.

Liable for hostile environments

When circulated on the job, this type of content can create a legally poisonous and actionable environment. For example, claims of religiousdiscrimination against Muslims are growing at an alarming rate. Although Muslims make up less than 2 percent of the U.S. population, they accounted for about one-quarter of the religious discrimination claims filed with the EEOC in 2009, according to a report in The New York Times.

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Employers that tolerate improper comments can be held liable for creating hostile environments. Most organizations have values defining who they are which include respect, dignity and inclusion. Different words may be used but they stand for a level of tolerance that can’t be realized if employees freely engage in and circulate the kind of comments or banter flooding talk shows and the Internet.

Finally, we work in increasingly global workplaces with colleagues drawn from virtually every demographic and geographic group. It’s tough enough to get work done when dealing with the vagaries of language, culture, and time zones. We can’t compete and work efficiently if our dealings lead to distrust and discord.

Hostile words prompt hostile reactions. What’s said outside of work can damage the workplace and literally turn deadly when brought into the office or plant.

Our laws recognize that some conduct and speech, however reprehensible, may be protected in some places, but not to the same extent, everywhere. What you can say and do at work is different than what you can say and do politically and personally.

In this intense time, employers and leaders would do well to remind everyone to behave with civility and professionalism in line with their clear, stated values and standards. Conduct of the sort I’ve mentioned here won’t be accepted if brought into many of our workplaces. Just ask Laura Schlesinger, Don Imus, and Rick Sanchez.

Stephen M. Paskoff, Esq., is the founder, president and CEO of ELI® eliinc.com, an Atlanta-based training company that teaches professional workplace conduct, helping clients translate their values into behaviors, increase employee contribution, build respectful and inclusive cultures, and reduce legal and ethical risk. Contact him at info@eliinc.com.