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Racial Tensions Strain Relations In The Workplace


Racial tensions are high after the last couple of weeks - the police killings of two black men and now eight police killed in two separate attacks. These tensions can show up at work, too. NPR's Yuki Noguchi reports some coworkers are struggling to find the words to help make things better.

YUKI NOGUCHI, BYLINE: The day after two white policemen shot Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, Contonius Gill went to work and got into a discussion with one of his white female coworkers whose brother happens to be an officer. The woman defended the police in the Sterling shooting. Gill, who is Black, couldn't let that stand.

CONTONIUS GILL: I didn't walk away because I want her to know that you're not going to say something that I disagree with or something that's erroneous and I just leave you with your thoughts. Since you left me with your thoughts, I'll leave you with mine.

NOGUCHI: The conversation was intense but civil. Gill, a network administrator in Charlotte, N.C., says it was unusual. His white colleagues usually don't seem comfortable talking about race.

GILL: I think that people maybe expect a lid to come off or something, you know, because of course, I mean, I do have a lot of feelings about it.

NOGUCHI: He has a lot of feelings in part because three years ago, Gill and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission won a race discrimination suit against his former employer, trucking firm A.C. Widenhouse. A jury found he was subject to racial slurs and threats to, quote, "hang from our family tree."

Race isn't just touchy for workers. It can also create problems for employers. Racial discrimination and harassment at work is illegal, and in the last three years, the number of such cases filed with the EEOC has increased. Even if an incident doesn't go to court, experts say employers that don't act fairly and decisively to punish racist behavior risk demoralizing their workforce and hurting productivity. And while free speech rights apply to personal speech outside of work, employers are increasingly concerned about how workers' online posts affect the workplace.

For example, in the days following the Dallas police killings, the Nashville Police Department decommissioned two officers for inflammatory postings on Facebook. In one of them, Officer Anthony Venable, who is white, wrote in an apparent defense of the Minnesota policeman who shot Philando Castile four times, quote, "yeah, I would have done five." Police chief Steve Anderson told Nashville Public Radio the incident is under investigation.

CHIEF STEVE ANDERSON: He may have disqualified himself to be a police officer.

NOGUCHI: Three days later, another Nashville officer, Christopher Taylor, was decommissioned after posting a photo of the Black Panthers on his page. Howard Ross, a diversity consultant, says he saw similar conflicts in police departments and other workplaces boil over after the shooting of unarmed teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson last summer.

HOWARD ROSS: People were coming right off the street the night before being out in a protest and then working side by side with somebody. And the energy from the protests got brought right into the workplace.

NOGUCHI: Allison Manswell is also a diversity consultant and author of "Listen In," a book about racial conversations in the workplace. She agrees heightened tension is finding inappropriate expression in the form of slurs, fights or surly online posts.

ALLISON MANSWELL: There are some workplaces where the culture and the environment was already prone to this, so they have got their hands full right now. I can tell you that with absolute certainty.

NOGUCHI: But, Manswell says, the answer isn't to quash discussion. She argues it should be encouraged in a mediated forum. Coworkers should offer each other mutual support, she argues, comparing the shootings to other fatal disasters.

MANSWELL: What's been happening around police brutality is a tsunami in the African-American community. How might it feel for all coworkers to come to work the next day and to not acknowledge that there was a tsunami?

NOGUCHI: Manswell lives in Baltimore where today a third police officer was acquitted, but three others still face charges in last year's death of Freddie Gray. She mediated a discussion between coworkers who shared their feelings about race.

MANSWELL: The conversation was difficult. There were tears. I mean, literally there were people in tears, but there was this high degree of understanding that came out of it at the end that was so worth it for everyone.

NOGUCHI: Contonius Gill, the network administrator, agrees. He says his conversation with his white colleague helped.

GILL: We haven't spoken about it since, but I'm not tense. I hope she's not.

NOGUCHI: Relieving that tension, he says, is the path to restoring civility.

GILL: These days definitely warrant discussion because I mean right now we are reeling. These things can't be set aside. They're not going to heal themselves.

NOGUCHI: Yuki Noguchi, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Yuki Noguchi is a correspondent on the Science Desk based out of NPR's headquarters in Washington, D.C. She started covering consumer health in the midst of the pandemic, reporting on everything from vaccination and racial inequities in access to health, to cancer care, obesity and mental health.