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There Are More Than 50 Shades of Grey at Work

Dealing with uncertainty, particularly when it comes to people, is extremely difficult and requires judgment and skills ranging from tact to direct confrontation.

August 27, 2013
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Colors mean a lot in our workplaces. They can symbolize issues, groups, and messages. Think of black, white, pink, red, and green, and, more than likely, several associations will quickly come to mind. Green means “go” or “money” or “environmentally conscious.” Most color associations are fairly easy to come up with. The color, grey, however, can be a bit more challenging. It stands for ambiguity. Dealing with uncertainty, particularly when it comes to people, is extremely difficult and requires judgment and skills ranging from tact to direct confrontation. But, first of all, you must determine whether and when grey issues should be dealt with at all.

Clear, obvious “black and white” people issues are relatively rare. But when they surface, we know what must happen. After multiple claims of blatant sexual misbehavior and harassment hit the news regarding San Diego’s Mayor Bob Filner, we didn’t have to wait for a panel of pundits to tell us that he had to go, despite Mayor Filner’s belief that behavioral rehab would save him. When evidence of Paula Deen’s use of racial language became public, it didn’t take a branding guru to recognize her reputation would suffer. Our only question was, how much? Think how much more challenging either case would have been had there been a pattern of subtler, but still harmful and demeaning, sexual or racial actions.

Though grey issues are, by definition, less obvious than blatant harms, in their own way, they can be just as insidious. When we run into them, we wonder if they occurred because those involved either had no judgment, no awareness, or were choosing to purposely skate towards, but not over, a line we all know can’t be crossed. At times, we also wonder if there’s even a problem at all, or is it possible that we’re simply overreacting?

No matter what the motivation is that drives such conduct, its effect is powerful and far-reaching. Specifically, it demeans or isolates others, can prevent them from participating in work and related social activities, and can otherwise limit their workplace involvement or advancement. We now say that such practices don’t foster inclusion. The question is: how do we deal with them?

Grey areas issues can be tricky to define and prevent, and they require skill to correct. We can neither simply give people a list of behaviors that they should avoid, nor a cookbook solution to make sure they are properly addressed. Say nothing, and grey area issues can chafe and ruin teamwork. Say too much, and the complainant can risk being branded too thin-skinned to be a long-term colleague in the rough and tumble of business, academia, government, service, or healthcare, as key examples. 

Here’s a quick checklist of “tools” to identify and address grey areas, which are key responsibilities for organizations and leaders intent on creating a more inclusive workplace. I have purposely used the words “conduct” and “behavior” repeatedly. Grey area actions are based on acts. Identifying them as such is the first key step.

  • Does the behavior consist of comments, jokes, or remarks that have racial, sexual, religious, or other content that demeans a particular group of persons? Quite often such grey area conduct is seen as innocent because it does not have explicitly taboo words or images. A single event may be a one-time lapse in judgment. But, it’s probably not an accident or harmless if it forms an ongoing pattern.
  • Does the conduct involve actions, such as excluding others from social groups, failing to recognize them in meetings or discussions, or dismissive body language or tone of voice?
  • Does the behavior affect a single individual or several persons?
  • Have multiple individuals commented or complained to leadership about such conduct?
  • Has the person engaging in the behavior been warned or counseled or even spoken to at any time about the behavior?
  • Has the individual repeated the behavior even after being told that his or her behavior has to change?
  • When leaders learn of such conduct is their reaction something like: “Well, that’s just the way he or she is. They don’t mean anything by it.”?

In an upcoming article, I‘ll discuss how to deal with such issues in a way likely to resolve them while preserving workplace relationships. For now, the more frequently the above signs appear, the more likely it is that there’s a grey area problem that needs to be addressed. If it’s not, it will become a different color. That color would be red. And, everyone knows red means danger.

Stephen Paskoff is a former EEOC trial attorney and the president and CEO of Atlanta-based ELI, Inc., which provides ethics and compliance training that helps many of the world's leading organizations build and maintain inclusive, legal, productive and ethical workplaces. Paskoff can be contacted at info@eliinc.com.

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