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The Human Element of Communication

February 26, 2013

One of the most admired African-American poets and authors once wrote, “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” Maya Angelou is an amazingly talented woman and a personal favorite of mine. Her written works are sincere, thought-provoking and applicable to everyday life.

My role as a management consultant, facilitator and seasoned corporate HR professional has afforded me the opportunity to witness the considerable challenges faced by employers and their employees in various industries and workplace environments. Through our everyday communications with one another, we are constantly reminded of the omnipresent trials and tribulations associated with embracing diversity that continue to exist.

Similarly, our quest to reach the ultimate goal—to create a productive, respectful workplace environment that is free of any potential discrimination and harassment—may at times seem elusive. On numerous occasions, following one of my sensitivity and diversity awareness training sessions, an employee or his or her manager has approached me and posed the question, “So, Jennifer … are you saying that we have to basically ‘walk on eggshells’ now? You mean, we can’t joke around anymore?” My response is always the same: Every situation is different, but how we control the situation is a key factor as to whether we achieve the results we are seeking.

Truth be told, we all possess one or more unconscious biases that can influence the way we initially perceive and ultimately interact with one another. We are all human beings and, for better or worse, creatures of habit. However, this does not grant us license to embarrass, humiliate, discriminate or harass co-workers or other individuals based on their protected class (race, gender, national origin, etc.).

We advise our clients to monitor the break rooms, water coolers and other areas where sensitive topics of conversation could possibly escalate into more serious matters. Employees should be periodically reminded of the company’s nonharassment policies and trained on how to maintain a respectful working environment. Management personnel should be similarly guided on how to implement proactive measures for their employees to avoid confrontational workplace situations and know how to appropriately handle these situations when they do occur.

One of the most important lessons I have learned over the years is that, if we begin the process of creating a respectful working environment by simply abiding by the Golden Rule—do unto others as you would have them do unto you—we have won half the battle. The remaining 50 percent will fall into place once the proper policies and procedures have been carefully identified, implemented and reinforced by upper management. In addition, mid-level managers must be fully equipped with the tools and techniques necessary to ensure success.

In the spirit of concluding Black History month, we should remember not only the dedicated individuals who have fought for civil rights, but also those who supported women’s rights, gay and lesbian rights, the 2009 Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act and other notable human rights movements. These amazing individuals have endured unimaginable sacrifices to pave the way for generations to come and have set standards for us to work and live by.

Moving forward, organizations should ensure their HR policies and procedures reflect and reinforce the principle of equal opportunity and justice for all people, every day. In the words of Maya Angelou, “If you don’t like something, change it. If you can’t change it, change your attitude.”