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Don't ignore it, confront racial tensions in the workplace

23 April 2010

Racial tensions are rising in the South African workplace mirroring often angry and divisive debates among politicians, the media and on social networking sites.

“You can ignore it and risk tensions rising or one group assuming that your silence supports a certain group, or you can sit employees down and say let’s discuss this,” Liza van Wyk, CEO of major management training group, AstroTech counsels.

“We are seeing more vigorous and often more heated debate than normal about race and culture among delegates to courses. We’re also seeing a demand in those who want our Managing Diversity and Emotional Intelligence courses and concerned businesspeople asking us and our facilitators how to cope.”

Van Wyk said current controversies focussed on certain individuals and organisations as ‘the problem’ when “it may be a barometer that we, as a society have pushed certain issues under the carpet that need to be aired and dealt with. When constructive discussions are held in the workplace they often reveal that racism occurs by black against white, white against black, South African against Nigerian, Christian against Muslim and other. Women will often raise issues around sexism and some will point to challenges around attitudes to those of other sexual preferences. Problems don’t go away of their own accord, if not managed well they can fester and result in damaging conflict.”

Christa Loots, a facilitator for AstroTech who has long experience in human resources management and training suggests that the rainbow nation concept may actually be “icing sugar over a burnt cake, we haven’t really dug deep and changed perceptions or set boundaries in how we will allow people to deal with us. Being tolerant is not managing diversity, one has to be careful one does not over-tolerate, boundaries have to be set.

"Your baseline is personal emotional intelligence which determines how you deal with your own issues and the way you see the world. Your recipe for the world is not someone else’s recipe.

“Assumptions are poisonous. To ignore racist or intolerant behaviour is a form of acceptance. Avoidance is the worst thing a manager can do. Instead of sending emails or making policies a good manager will raise the issue in a normal team or workplace meeting – don’t make an issue of the discussion by sending out special requests to the meeting because that can also raise tensions. You need to sit around the table and defuse the situation and that does not mean people having to keep quiet or tolerating bad behaviour because someone comes from a group normally discriminated against."

Loots recommends that if someone is trying to push buttons and cause controversy in the workplace that also has to be recognised and not tolerated. “In some ways there has been a culture of over-tolerance to some forms of behaviour in our society, people have lost parameters of what is socially acceptable conduct.”

She gives an example of a company with a talented individual who is gay who deserves to be promoted, but such promotion will “send him to an environment stuck in the 1950s, legally you should appoint him, but first consider, will you destroy him in the process or is this a careful strategy, with the consent of the appointee, to create needed change?”

Loots says too, that “sexism is flourishing, women will often get a lot of support even up to middle management but as they are promoted higher they begin getting challenged particularly if they take action against incompetent males.”

Van Wyk noted that research has shown that managers are more likely to employ people similar to them. “A white male from a private school background is more likely to employ similar men even of a similar age to him and women are no different. It is poor management to only appoint people who go to the same church, belong to the same cycling club or nationality; innovation requires diversity. No company can truly grow to the heights it deserves if everyone thinks the same.

“Rather have common values set that binds people for example, most people support honesty and the protection of children and the environment.”
Loots says: “There is a danger of labelling people. Don’t assume all people of a certain race, gender, nationality or religion are the same. Ask the individual if you are not certain. For example, in black culture men walk through the door ahead of women, this is a mechanism designed to protect women from harm that may be waiting ahead – however, some white women might consider this conduct rude because they are used to white men allowing them to go forward first.

“Many companies have stork parties for pregnant women ahead of them having their baby, but in some cultures it is considered bad luck to buy things for the baby before he or she is born.”

It’s a globalised world, Van Wyk pointed out, “If you want to be effective in business with the Japanese, Chinese or Dutch you need to learn a few of their greetings and understand some of their culture and history. It is not too much to ask that you do the same at home.”



LIZA VAN WYK, CEO ASTRO TECH 011 582 3200 cell: 082 466 8975 or

Issued by Charlene Smith Communications 011-646 7637 or 082 495 8716