Politics, prejudice pose problems in workplace
The jarring message — “White Power” — was scrawled in fire-engine-red marker in one of the busiest spots at Massachusetts Eye and Ear hospital, near an elevator that hundreds of patients, visitors, and workers pass every day.
Emotions were already raw in the days following the presidential election, and the graffiti, discovered Nov. 18, was a “big slap in the face,” said Dr. Rebecca Hammon, a resident at the Boston teaching hospital, which employs many people of color.
While the incident was a first at the hospital, such workplace events nationally grew increasingly common over the course of last year’s presidential campaign.
A May survey of businesses by a human resource trade group found about one-fourth reported more political volatility in their workplaces compared with previous presidential campaigns. By late October, that had risen dramatically: Deep in the throes of an invective-laden campaign, 52 percent of employers nationally said their workplaces were more volatile.
“Most employers are seeing these low-level comments that workers think they can throw around because they hear it in the public square, and they think it’s OK to use in the workplace,” said Oneida D. Blagg, who has worked as a diversity officer in businesses and serves as a specialist on the issue for the Society for Human Resource Management, which conducted the workplace surveys.
Many of those responding to the survey said employees had become more vocal about their political opinions, discussing and arguing in the workplace.
Data from the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission also suggest flash points from the divisive campaign are heating up in the workplace.
Complaints about religious discrimination in the workplace filed with the commission had been declining each year since 2011, then jumped last year. So, too, have complaints about discrimination based on race, and on national origin. Both were on the decline until an increase in 2016, the commission’s numbers show.
And that was before millions of people across the country took to the streets in recent weeks to protest and many businesses closed in a nationwide action called a “Day Without Immigrants,” designed to illustrate the effect immigrants have on the US economy.
With future workplace strikes planned — a national “Day Without A Woman” action is slated for early March — employers are seeking guidance about how to respond, Blagg said.
“This is a real thing that is fueling additional concerns,” she said.
Religion is one of the workplace issues causing heightened anxieties, particularly affecting Muslims. Blagg said employers took notice in 2015 when the Supreme Court ruled against clothing company Abercrombie & Fitch, which had refused to hire a Muslim woman because she wore a head scarf.
Six months later, Donald Trump — in the midst of the Republican presidential primary — announced he would pursue a “total and complete” ban on Muslims entering the United States because of a “great hatred toward Americans by large segments of the Muslim population.”
Reports of a surge in anti-Muslim crimes followed.
Blagg said companies are now acutely aware they might face complaints about religious discrimination, and that has prompted them to pay closer attention to providing religious accommodations, such as allowing Muslim women to wear head scarves even if a workplace prohibits head coverings.
“They are really focusing on this because this is where the issues have been rising, the religious-based, culturally based issues,” Blagg said.
At Mass. Eye and Ear, the “White Power” graffiti incident still reverberates. The Harvard- affiliated teaching hospital is intimate, with just 26 residents training to specialize in ear, nose, and throat medicine, including two who come from refugee families.
“Some of the senior residents said, ‘This is unacceptable,’ and then everyone jumped on board,” said Dr. Deepa Galaiya, a resident and the daughter of immigrants from India.
“After that, people were much more likely to send out links about protests, or call senators, and we didn’t do anything like that before,” Galaiya said. “It was more like an affirmation.”
Galaiya said she was heartened hospital leaders took swift action. They pored through footage from security cameras for days but could not find who scrawled the hateful message near the elevators on the 11th floor, said Jennifer Street, a hospital spokeswoman.
“I have been here 10 years, and I do not remember anything like this happening,” Street said.
The hospital also e-mailed a message to all employees saying no incident could ever change its “culture of mutual trust, respect, compassion, and kindness.”
The graffiti had unnerved workers. And then it galvanized some to become politically active.
The residents, most of whom are liberal, have been careful to not let their new political activism intrude in the workplace, especially because some of the senior physicians are more conservative, Galaiya said.
“Despite all the political differences,” Galaiya said, “we all get along.”
Smaller businesses are also grappling with politically charged situations.
The National Federation of Independent Business, a trade group representing more than 300,000 small-business owners nationwide, has received requests from members seeking guidance on handling tense political discussions in the workplace.
Elizabeth Milito, the organization’s senior executive counsel, said in an e-mail she cautioned employers that a “blanket prohibition on political discussion” probably wouldn’t pass legal muster. Instead, she said she advised them to “discourage supervisors from having political discussions with subordinates,” and to remind employees of a company’s harassment and no discrimination policies.
The political climate has become so tense that many employers, especially in the service industry, are refraining from speaking out for fear of offending anyone, said Jon Hurst, president of the Retailers Association of Massachusetts.
While recent headlines highlighted well-known restaurants nationwide that closed or tweeted supportive messages during the “Day Without Immigrants” strikes, many more remained quietly on the sidelines.
“They are afraid of offending someone on one end, or another, of the thought process, worried that will turn into threats and boycotts,” Hurst said. “It’s got a lot of people gun shy to say anything publicly.”