Dealing with all the “…Isms”

Recent events in which a number of people have been fired for making racist comments in the social media have highlighted the need for companies to take decisive action

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There’s an old football joke that goes something like this: Why does Greece never get to the FIFA World Cup finals? Because every time they get a corner they open a café. Every time I hear it, I cringe, because in some way it shows me that it’s okay to make fun of other people based on seemingly irrelevant or illogical criteria, and it’s a way of putting me down.

Racism, sexism, and ageism are just three examples of how human beings make judgements about other people that are different to us. There are so many ways in which we differentiate and appraise people based on their culture, religion, language, dress, career choice, suburb where they live, cars they drive, and so on. Even overweight and disabled people are picked on by others. But it causes hurt and fear, and feelings of hurt and fear lead to defensiveness, aggression, and in the worst case scenario, to wars and death. Businesses are certainlynegatively affected when customers, employees and other stakeholders feel hurt by the comments of others.

As human beings we cannot help ourselves from drawing conclusions about other people, and every one of us on this planet is guilty of doing this. Maybe it is a residual part of our humans from the Neolithic Age where survival depended on judging whether strangers we encountered were friend or foe. There have always been, and will always be people who make judgements about others. There will always be people who feel superior, be aggressive bullies, feel threatened or over-sensitive, or want to make a point about these kinds of differences. Their behaviour says more about them than about you and your business.

Some not-so-obvious verbal and non-verbal ways of displaying this include:

·      Use of words like “You people,” such as “Don’t you people ever stop talking?”

·      Comments and put-downs like: “Why do I always have to explain this so many times? Are you hard of hearing?” Another one is to refer to women as “Girls.

·      Patronising words to address people, like “Chief” and “Mama.”

·      Making patronising comments, exaggerations and generalisations like “Why are you Muslims always fasting?”, or “You whites are always in such a rush.”

·      Being unsympathetic, intolerant or impatient with customers, and treating them as if they were slow or stupid

·      Ignoring some customers, while being favourable to others.

·      Making broad generalisations and exaggerations like Speaking in a language that customers don’t understand, or whispering so that they don’t hear, and also laughing at such comments.

·      Making facial expressions that include sneers, irritation, eyebrow-lifting, rolling eyes, and so on.

·      Asking questions or making comments in a voice tone that is judgemental, critical, condemnatory, disapproving, disparaging, or unfavourable, like “Don’t you ever listen to what people tell you?”

It is a particularly sensitive issue in our business world today, so avoiding problems in the first place is far, far better than having to deal with them when they occur. Prevention means that there has to be, on your part, a great deal of awareness and sensitivity to differences - even though your own initial instinctual reaction may be the opposite. People like you and me have to be able to feel really good about ourselves, to be confident and strong, in order to deal with what can be very hurtful sometimes.

Prevention is about learning as much as you can about other races, cultures, religions, ages, language groups, and to challenge our opinions and assumptions. Judging others is not going to help in any way. Accepting that others have a right to their beliefs and values does not mean that you give up your right to yours, but “freedom of speech” doesn’t give us a right to say hurtful things.

Avoidance means that you have to discuss and debate these things in your own businessright now, especially if you are a front-line employee who deals with customers. You are usually in a position of power because of what you know, who you know, what you can do to help them, and your skills and training. Most importantly, you are primarily there to help them, not to judge them.

If you are a manager, you need to emphasise what the consequences for this kind of behaviour will be – dismissal is the only option open to most businesses today. It’s probably also a good idea to talk about the power of social media, and what comments people are not allowed to make even in their private forums.

What happens when it all blows up? With customers that are judgemental and discriminating, the best thing to do is to NOT get involved in an argument with them about race, culture, religion, language or any other -isms! It is an argument that you cannot win, no matter what you think.

The attack may seem personal, but it's because the customer has got a problem, not you. If they feel a need to make judgements about you because of who you are, then understand that it is because of their insecurities, and weaknesses, not about you. While these attacks are always hurtful, it is best to finish offthis encounter as soon as possible, by doing some of these things:

·      To disarm difficult people, charm them. As the old adage goes, you catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.

·      You can also say: "Look, I can understand your reluctance to deal with me because I am Black/White// Afrikaner etc., but I can help you to deal with this matter. May I do so?"

·      Transfer the customer to their preference of race or person, and forget about it.

·      If your manager sanctions this, and in a calm but firm voice, say something like: “I’m sorry Mr. X, but what you are saying makes me uncomfortable. With the greatest respect to you, I am now going to put the telephone down, (or walk away from this.)” Then put the telephone down, or physically walk away.

·      You can also do a "negative enquiry". If they say that you are all just a bunch of corrupt thieves, you can counter this by saying, "What causes you to say that I’m trying to steal from you?"

·      Restate or reflect back what you have just heard, making sure that you are empathetic. Typically, you can say, "So because you are so angry, you think that we're all a bunch of crooks?"

So please, no more jokes about the Greeks, or else I might just lose it and end up in jail for assault with intent to cause grievous bodily harm!

*Aki Kalliatakis is managing partner of The Leadership Launchpad, a consultancy dedicated to sustainable improvements in customer service.

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