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Ask an Ethicist: What should I do if I encounter discrimination in the workplace?

The workplace should be an inclusive, safe and welcoming environment. But what happens if you feel discriminated against or someone who is known to discriminate or regularly uses offensive speech is promoted. How should you deal with this and what resources do you have at your disposal? This week’s column aims to offer some advice on the subject.

Tom C. HoganIn partnership with the Rock Ethics Institute, Penn State Today’s feature column, "Ask an Ethicist," aims to shed light on ethical questions from our readers. Each article in this column will feature a different ethical question answered by a Penn State ethicist. We invite you to ask a question by filling out and submitting this form. An archive of the columns can be found on the Rock Ethics Institute website.

Question: What do you do if your coworker constantly says racist, homophobic and just plain ignorant things to you all the time, but never says this in front of your supervisor who thinks they are a great employee? This individual is now currently applying for a position in my office which has more responsibility, including hiring and terminating employee and that concerns me. I feel I should speak up because my boss really values and puts a large emphasis on diversity and inclusiveness. I don't want to start trouble or be a tattle-tale, but, this unknown side of her really doesn't seem right to me due to the lack of  inclusiveness she will bring to the office and the potential disruptive effect.

An ethicist responds: Before addressing the question posed, let’s discuss what you can do when you encounter discrimination in the workplace. Discrimination in the workplace is a common occurrence. In addition to being illegal, it is unethical and can have an insidious impact on organizational culture, workforce productivity and organizational sustainability. It can have an adverse impact on trust, employee engagement and workforce creativity and innovation.  Furthermore, if it is determined in a court of law that it results in a hostile work environment, it can result in significant financial risks to the organization.

When you encounter a coworker or supervisor that says racist, homophobic and just plain offensive things, you have a choice to make:

  • You can ignore it;
  • You can “Give Voice” to your values and inform the individual that you are offended and request that they stop;
  • You can report the incident to Human Resources;
  • You can report the incident using an organizational hotline; and
  • You can go outside the organization and report the incident to local, state and federal agencies.

Ignoring the incident will ensure that the offensive behavior by the individual will continue and perhaps spread to others. “Giving Voice” to your values involves engaging the individual in a constructive dialogue. While this may be an uncomfortable conversation to have, it can be effective. Raising awareness and educating some individuals that their speech and/or behavior is offensive and negatively affects your ability to be effective and productive at work may result in a change and a cessation of the offensive speech and behavior.

If “Giving Voice” to your values fails to stop the offensive speech or behavior or you aren’t comfortable discussing this with the individual, reporting the incident to Human Resources should be your next step. Your report should result in an incident investigation and/or some type of intervention.

An alternative to reporting the incident to Human Resources, you can report the incident using an internal organizational hotline. For example, Penn State offers the Ethics and Compliance Hotline 1-800-560-1637 or online. If you have exhausted the above approaches and the behavior continues, you may want to consider going outside the organization and reporting the situation to the appropriate local, state and federal agencies.

Now let’s consider the question posed. If a coworker has a history of saying racist, homophobic and just plain offensive things, and the individual is being considered for a position in your office which has more responsibility and power over things like hiring and firing, I would argue that the individual is a poor fit for the culture of your organization and you have an ethical obligation to speak up and inform your boss. If your boss really values and puts a large emphasis on diversity and inclusive excellence, then they will welcome your input and consider it in the hiring decision. 

People drive organizational growth and success by leveraging their unique talents and capabilities. Successful organizations seek to become a destination for talent and focus on removing barriers to success. However, an organization can place itself at a competitive disadvantage relative to the acquisition and retention of talent if it develops a reputation as having an intolerant and hostile work environment. One potential impact of such a reputation is a decline in organizational performance resulting from low morale and a disengaged workforce. It is difficult to contribute your talent and energy to achieving organizational goals if you feel excluded, disrespected and devalued as a human being.  Conversely, much research and practice show that a diverse team, well managed, will yield superior results and that the individuals on a well-managed diverse team are more engaged and productive.

Civility and the Global Workplace

We live in a global knowledge economy that is highly diverse, highly interconnected, highly interrelated and highly dependent upon the contributions of talented, diverse and engaged individuals and teams. In the broadest sense, civility can be defined as demonstrating respect for ourselves and others. In a community or collective (e.g., organization, university, country and professional society) inclusion and respect can be viewed as prerequisites for living and working together productively, successfully and in a manner that can be sustained over the long term. Civility is learned behavior and a skill set that involves choice and the recognition that we need to restrain our speech and behavior for the “greater good”. We can choose to say racist, homophobic and just plain offensive things, or not. Therefore, communities must clearly and consistently communicate what the values and social norms of the organization are. These values, such as promoting diversity, fostering inclusiveness and creating a safe and welcoming workplace, represent the shared mutual expectations of members of the community. 

Tom C. Hogan, SHRM-SCP, SPHR, GPHR is a professor of practice in Human Resource Management at the Penn State, School of Labor and Employment Relations. He is director of the School’s Academy of Human Capital Development and serves as scholar-in-residence at the Sustainability Institute. Dr. Hogan teaches undergraduate and graduate courses in-residence and on-line. His research and teaching interests include global leadership development, global diversity and inclusion, business ethics, corporate social responsibility and sustainability.

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Note: The "Ask an Ethicist" column is a forum to promote ethical awareness and inquiry across the Penn State community. These articles represent the interests and judgments of each author as an individual scholar and are neither official positions of the Rock Ethics Institute nor Penn State University. They are designed to offer a possible approach to a subject and are not intended as definitive statements on what is or is not ethical in any given situation. Read the full disclaimer.