Post Election Racial Tensions Challenge HR & Diversity Professionals

Human resource and diversity professionals have been contacting in an effort to figure out how to manage volatile discussions about Barack Obama being elected as the next U.S. president.Seminar Advertisement

The presidential race has been especially tense since the U.S. Supreme Court’s historic decision to declare George W. Bush the winner in 2000. It did not help matters after the final tally weeks later showed that Al Gore won the popular vote. George Bush won a second term in 2004, which further infuriated his opponents. One bumper sticker states how some felt about him as their leader—“Somewhere in Texas a Village Is Missing Its Idiot.” So, it may not be surprising that people have some pretty harsh things to say about our new president, Barack Obama. Imagine the things opponents are saying about the first president of color.

Check out these news reports:
Baylor University (11/05/2008)
• One guy taunted Obama supporters by saying “You’re in Texas and y’alls vote didn’t count because Texas still voted McCain.”
• One African American woman says she overheard some white males talking about how they were going to beat up the next black person that walked by.
• The Lariat, Baylor’s student newspaper, posted video of the burning of Obama and Biden campaign signs on their Web site.
“Those expressions of disagreement or that ‘my candidate didn’t win’ can take on a racial overtone, either on purpose or indirectly,” Baylor sociology professor Kevin Dougherty said in response.

The Intelligence Project at the Southern Poverty Law Center, which monitors hate crimes, said there have been “hundreds” of incidents since the election, many more than usual.
• There have been cross burnings.
• Schoolchildren have chanted “Assassinate Obama.”
• Black figures have been hung from nooses.
• Racial epithets were scrawled on homes and cars.
While most of the reported incidents were in southern states, they certainly have not been limited to the south.
The major problem is that people have to take sides in these incidents which most often than not reproduces racial divisiveness. Consider the following reported incident:

University of Texas backup center Buck Burnette was kicked off the team by Coach Mack Brown after he posted the following message on his Facebook page:

. . . “all the hunters gather up, we have a #$%&er in the whitehouse”

Before he took his Facebook page down, Burnette offered the following as an apology:

“Clearly I have made a mistake and apologized for it and will pay for it. I received it as a text message from an acquaintance and immaturely put it up on facebook in the light of the election. Im not racist and apologize for offending you. I grew up on a ranch in a small town where that was a real thing and I need to grow up. I sincerely am sorry for being ignorant in thinking that it would be ok to write that publicly and apologize to you in particular. I have to be more mature than to put the reputation of my team at stake and to spread that kind of hate which I dont even believe in. Once again, I sincerely apologize.”

One reader’s comment about his remarks stated:

“I am glad he was kicked off. He supposedly is a “Christian” and spoke to youth groups at his home town as a role model. What a terrible example of christianity he is. I am embarrassed to say he is from Wimberley [Texas]. Those comments don’t just accidentally get posted. Buck’s true colors are showing.”

Someone else felt compelled to stick up for him by stating the following:
“What he said was stupid and inexcusable. That being said he is still just a 20 year old kid. He deserves a second chance as much as anyone. Who among us didn’t say or do something you later regretted when you were 20?”

You can imagine this discussion in a diversity course. People will take sides, disagree, and the discussion may heat up to the point that the facilitator will need to intervene.

Now consider the potential impact of post presidential election discussions in creating tension among workplace colleagues. This real life case from Canada drives the point home.

“When his boss labelled him a “terrorist” and referred to him as Bin Laden, car painter Sashram Dastghib struck back with a discrimination complaint. Dastghib, who emmigrated from Iran in search of a better life, often worked 14 hours a day at Richmond Auto Body in North Vancouver and rose through the ranks to become its highest paid painter.”

Although he claimed to love his job, Dastghib alleged co-workers Joel Franske and Peter De Santis made him the butt of racist jokes. This included addressing him over the loudspeaker as Bin Laden, and [posted] a “Wanted — Dead or Alive” poster, portraying him as a terrorist. The poster claimed he dressed in drag, had been indicted for bombing, was arrested for prostitution and was involved in bestiality and pornography.”
“Dastghib was fired after a workplace altercation with coworkers and laid a complaint of discrimination before the B.C. [British Columbia] Human Rights Tribunal. The managers admitted to the poster but denied repeated racist name calling. They claimed the human rights application was trumped up as retaliation for his being fired.”

“Everyone in the shop had a nickname based on some personal characteristic, they said. The employer maintained Dastghib never protested and furthermore participated in the workplace banter. Dastghib allegedly joked in one lunchroom exchange that he was entitled to a $1-million reward from the wanted poster because he really was a terrorist.”

“Many of the company’s claims may seem sensible — the workplace was collegial, and Dastghib socialized with the very people named in his complaint. The Tribunal heard that Franske, for example, had invited Dastghib into his home to hold his newborn child. The group even took scuba diving lessons together.”

“The tribunal disallowed the employer’s defence of ‘consent,’ saying the poster was a ‘particularly venal” diatribe. ‘It would be bad enough for this poster to come from a co-worker but it is much worse when it comes from a manager,’ the tribunal said, in concluding ‘the company created a poisoned environment’.”
“It also rejected the company’s claim the human rights complaint emerged only when Dastghib was fired for cause after the altercation. It found the discriminatory actions by the managers, including the poster, contributed to Dastghib’s anger, and was a factor in the outburst that lead to his being fired.”

In other words, Dastghib had to endure a hostile workplace that led to his anger and the altercation—and management was a perpetrator instead of protector.

It may appear that our right to vote for our candidate of choice translates into openly showing our disdain for the opponent even in the workplace, but doing so can create a hostile environment. Human resource and diversity professionals must be prepared to manage workplace hostility to guard against legal action and lower production.

What is the best way to handle workplace conflict due to heated presidential elections discussions? Here are a few things to consider:
1. Get the top leader(s) of your company to make an organization wide statement about the need for post-election civility and that inappropriate conduct will not be tolerated.
2. Use expert facilitators to hold a town hall meeting to discuss the election focusing on the racial, gender, and ageism tones that characterized the campaigns and how they can creep into the workplace. A diverse team of facilitators is a must.
3. Establish ground rules for talking about the town hall topic and sharing opinions.
4. Use an Ice Breaker that will help participants feel more comfortable with each other.
5. Discuss the costs and benefits of sharing personal views with workplace colleagues.
6. Teach participants how to use the Powerful Questions technique as a method of inquiry in sharing and learning about other groups.
7. Break participants into ethnic or racial groups to share their views safely and have them return to the larger group to share what they learned in the dialog. You may want to use an incident like the one involving Buck Burnett to discuss the pros and cons of kicking him off the team or helping him learn a lesson from the incident.
8. Have the groups reflect on what they learned from the summaries the groups shared, especially focusing on seeking clarity and understanding each other’s perspectives.
9. Break participants into randomly assigned small groups to discuss what they had learned and to learn from each other. Have each person write down what she or he learned from the town hall meeting.
10. Have an open discussion in the general group about what was learned.

Of course, you need excellent facilitation skills to create a safe environment, maintain civility while allowing people to get emotionally involved, and to identify teachable moments that you use to increase learning.

About the Author: Billy Vaughn, PhD CDP is a certified diversity professional with He is a master certification trainer, cultural competence coach, sought after consultant, professional speaker, accomplished author, and cultural diversity thought leader. He can be reach at billy at

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