In the last month, I have received a multitude of calls from both existing and potential new clients, asking for Global Learning’s guidance when it comes to workplace sensitivity.

Workplace sensitivity is the physical, cultural and emotional awareness of people in a shared workspace.

From Halloween costumes to poorly communicated frustration to lifestyle assumptions, here are some examples of the situations I have been recently hearing about:

Situation 1:

It’s Halloween, and the office is filled to the brim with pirates, kittens, and zombies. In walks a manager, a 50 year old Korean-Canadian woman wearing a Jamaican flag, colored Rastafarian hat complete with fake dreadlock extensions, baggy jeans, and an armband with a symbolic marijuana leaf on it. To make matters worse, she also chooses to carry around a fake “joint” for the day.

The issue (beyond it being blatantly racist): A subordinate of the manager is the child of Jamaican immigrants.

Situation 2:

In the midst of meeting a deadline, an employee’s computer crashes leaving their work inaccessible for over an hour. While describing the situation to a co-worker, the employee uses the phrase:

“I just want to shoot myself, I’m so frustrated. Seriously pass me the gun so I can kill myself now.”

The issue: A family member of a nearby co-worker had recently attempted to commit suicide. 

Situation 3:

An employee is reading a fashion/health magazine on her break and begins to talk about a featured article on breastfeeding. The employee turns to a co-worker and states:

“Oh my god, that is just so disgusting! This woman breast-fed her child till he was 3. That’s so gross!”

The issue: The co-worker she was speaking to has very specific views about breast-feeding, and chose to breast feed her children until they were 5. 

As to why many organizations feel motivated to deal with workplace sensitivity, the two reasons we hear most often are: “We don’t want to get sued.” and “Because it’s the right thing to do.” But as leaders, workplace sensitivity goes well beyond legal compliance and social justice.

Workplace sensitivity issues are often deeply rooted in shame. Not only does the initial person feeling offended deal with a sense of shame, but very often, shame is used as retaliation to the person who sincerely made a mistake.

Shame invokes withdrawal, anger and fear. These emotions lead to mental distraction and any number of volatile reactions. It’s our responsibility as leaders to inspire, instill and maintain a constant flow of innovative productivity within our organization. Shame in any form is lethal to innovation.

In case you missed it, we highly recommend watching the TED talkby @BreneBrown on Shame.

You can watch it – here.

Workplace sensitivity issues frequently arise from what many perceive as harmlessly intended humour. Humour in the workplace can be a wonderful thing: it can attract business, enhance the relationship with clients, and can even be a clear sign of a great leader. Truly humourous people can be quick problem-solvers, all while maintaining a team’s energy level. But there has to be very clear lines drawn as to what your organization will and will not tolerate as “funny”.

As a leader, ask yourself these two questions in regard to workplace sensibility:

How are you as an organizational leader educating your team in regard to understanding workplace sensibility?

How do you as an organizational leader handle the situation when insensitivity occurs in your workplace?

Your response to these sensitive, yet real life situations set the tone for your employees as well as for the reputation of your organization as a whole.

“Rudeness is the weak man’s imitation of strength.”  – Eric Hoffer

about the author - Elaine

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