"Mandatory" Knows No Color

Last Updated Jun 26, 2007 11:43 AM EDT

stop_racism_keys.jpgI'm the president of a 200-person company in a small town, and we've been having some racial tensions in our office because of an insensitive email -- featuring a racial joke -- that an employee forwarded to others. That employee has been dismissed, and to help prevent future problems I closed the company for a day and brought in a group to do a diversity training seminar. I made it clear to all of my employees that this training was mandatory and anyone who failed to attend would be subject to disciplinary action.
On the day of the diversity seminar, several of our black employees did not show up for the event, claiming it was some sort of protest about the company's handling of the incident.
I don't want to do anything that will further the racial tensions, but at the same time I made it clear that those who did not attend would face a punishment. Where's the line?
Racial tension is a poison for any company, and, without knowing all the details, it sounds like you've been taking an active approach to help resolve those issues. But now you've been thrown into it head-on. Your boycotting employees have placed you in the middle of the issue. They're testing you.

Your best option it to not take sides in the issue -- the more it is presented as two sides, the longer the issue will last -- and instead do exactly what you said you would do: punish the absentees.

Mandatory knows no color.

By allowing your black employees to get away with skipping the event, you would be treating them differently when equality is the ultimate goal.The diversity seminar was your attempt at a day of healing, and anyone who chose not to attend voted to delay that healing process.

The trickiest part will be coming up with a suitable punishment. Avoid anything involving shame; that's not what you're after. You want something that returns those employees to the fold, but also has the taste of penance. If you can find a solution that incorporates some of the diversity goals from the seminar, that would be best.

Your decision may not go over well at first, but in the end it will send the correct message to your employees: that you're a boss that treats all men and women equal.

Have a workplace-ethics dilemma? Ask it here, or email wherestheline@gmail.com

  • William Baker

    William Baker is a freelance writer living in Cambridge, MA. His work has appeared in Popular Science, the Boston Globe Magazine, the New York Daily News, Boston Magazine, The Weekly Dig and a bunch of other places (including Field & Stream, though he doesn't hunt and can't really fish). He is a regular contributor to the Boston Globe, where he writes the weekly column, "Meeting the Minds." He holds a master's degree from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, and is at work on his first book.