HR’s Response to Racism In Viral Form

Social media is one helluva thing.  It can rapidly spread information (both fact and lie), keep us connected to friends and family around the world, and put a glaring spotlight on our abhorrent behavior.  Like Amy Cooper’s.

If you missed Monday evening’s social media, Christian Cooper, a black man, was out watching birds in New York’s Central Park when he saw Amy Cooper, a white woman, out with her unleashed, rescued Cocker Spaniel.  Christian (because there are too many Coopers in this story to keep everyone straight) asked Amy to leash her dog per the Park’s rules and the many signs posted near the area.  What happened next is subject to this video and represents a potentially lethal cocktail of lies, threats, racism, white privilege, and police involvement.

Within just a few hours, Amy was identified as a Vice President for Franklin Templeton, an investment firm, and placed on administrative leave.  She turned her dog over to the rescue shelter where she got him.  Not surprisingly, the video went viral while #AmyCooper and #FireHer trended in tandem.  And, perhaps surprisingly, Franklin Templeton’s website appeared to crash.

Imagine for a minute that you’re in HR for the organization Amy works for.  What do you recommend? 

Put her on administrative leave? Absolutely, leave is exactly the right thing to do immediately, especially on a holiday.  Leave buys everyone some time to cautiously go through what happened and prepare next steps.

Investigate?  Investigate this particular incident?  No. The video is pretty clear, and she’s admitted her conduct.  A decision can be made right now.  However, should you investigate whether Amy’s behavior has impacted employees in the organization.  No doubt about it.  You have to.  Because Amy appears to have supervisory authority, her attitudes towards race may have impacted decisions she has made involving performance reviews, hiring, firing, training, etc.  Going through those decisions is going to be a must.  Not only will the video be Exhibit A in any discrimination case brought against Franklin Templeton that involves Amy, it will also impact the employees she supervises and works with.  Some may believe that the racism she displayed in the video affected her decisions and will want to know from you that you’re taking it seriously while determining if it actually has.

Talk with employees?  Absolutely.  This incident is going to affect your workplace.  Black and brown employees are going to be particularly affected and will be paying close attention to how the organization responds.  Let’s assume the organization wants to be antiracist.  A message from the CEO must happen and happen quickly.  Open forums (even over video) should take place so you can hear from employees, and employees should be encouraged to bring up concerns in any format they choose.  Amy’s managers (and potentially every manager) should hold meetings with staff talking about the organization’s commitment to being antiracist.  You can casually check-in with other staff too, touching base with them. Check-in especially with staff who you believe would participate in a forum if it was held in-person but who don’t appear at the virtual forum.

Remind employees about your policies?  You betcha!  You’re going to remind employees about your harassment and discrimination policies (which no doubt would cover the kind of conduct in the video).  You’re also going to remind employees about your policy about talking to the media, namely that they are not authorized to speak for your org unless specifically told they may.  If you don’t have this policy, that’s okay, but make sure you tell employees they cannot speak for the org.

Fire her?  You have no other option.  Leave was the right decision Monday evening, but you have to recommend her term today.  Is this a trial by media?  Of course.  Did she admit the conduct?  Yes.  Is it affecting your workplace?  Your servers crashed, your organization is in every major newspaper around the globe.  Employees are outraged.  Customers are likely outraged.  You have no other viable option.  Sensitivity training isn’t going to cut it. Keeping Amy will forever bind her acts of racism to your employer brand.

Now, imagine you’re in HR for the organization Christian works for.  What do you recommend?

Administrative leave?  No.

Investigate?  No.

Talk with employees?  Absolutely.  Talk with Christian.  See how he’s doing.  If he’s okay, tell him you’re happy he is.  The media spotlight is going to be glaring at him for a bit, so ask him what you can do to help minimize any negative impact.  Does he want to you to share with the media that he is your employee and that he’s great or not-so-great?  Does he want you to remain mum?  Ask him.  Your support is important.  You should also hold other meetings with employees, like open forums to talk about the incident and how it might affect them.  Managers should be equipped with talking points about how the organization is going to respond.

Remind employees about your policies?  Yep!  Same reminders as above.

Fire him?  Nope.  Christian did nothing wrong.

Remember, Justine Sacco?  The lady who tweeted a racist sentiment before getting on flight to Johannesburg?  She was fired mid-flight.  Amy is going to get fired here too.  And, that’s the right decision.  What’s more important though is how you in HR respond to Amy’s conduct.  How you address employees.  How you give them the opportunity to share their feelings and ideas on how to be better.  Not giving employees the opportunity to share, not addressing the situation will make everything worse, for a long, long time. 

Photo by camilo jimenez on Unsplash

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3 thoughts on “HR’s Response to Racism In Viral Form

  1. All great points here

    A note on Justine Sacco: she bounced back pretty quickly, and after a couple of years, she even scored another –even more prestigious if I recall correctly – position with a subsidiary of the company that fired her. And before that she became something of a cause célèbre for Jon Ronson.

  2. How about victims that are not comfortable with going viral or able to go viral? How about perpetrators that aren’t in managerial positions? Because the organization the perpetrator works for isn’t getting bad publicity, website crashes, or other staff affected by the bias; should these victims be second class citizens, perpetrators “get away” with their acts, and the organization continue funding the perpetrators acts? No. Or should these victims be able to report conduct to the perpetrators organization? Yes. Should these perpetrators equally speak for their outside the workplace conduct–the same conduct that had they committed at the workplace, there are procedures in place to address? Yes. Should anti-racist organizations discontinue funding activity they are aware or or should be aware of? Yes.

    I propose antiracist organizations explicitly expand the protections many of them are already required to provide by the U.S. Civil Rights Act of 1964 Title VII to conduct away from the workplace or outside the scope of their employment. Although this is far from a zero tolerance policy, it provides consistent protections to victims, consistent security for employees, and brings with it decades of jurisprudence and guidance. Explicitly expanding these protections does not box organizations in or create a cieling on what they can do. If the employee is at will, the organization can continue to terminate their employment as they ordinarily would. These proposal is sensible and scalable at a global level, beyond where the protections of Title VII reach.

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