I was walking past a meeting of managers when I heard someone respond to a topic on COVID-19, “It’s kung flu, what do you expect?” My heart skipped a beat as I slowed down to observe the reactions through the glass wall. Some laughed, some chuckled uncomfortably, and the single Asian employee in the room forced a reluctant smile on one corner of his mouth. It was clear that, as the youngest of the managers, he was not inclined to say anything. So, I turned back to enter the room and closed the door behind me.
I first addressed the manager who made the comment. I asked him if he realized that the term “kung flu” is racially insensitive. In an attempt to make light of the situation he replied, “Well, the virus is from Asia, isn’t it?”, as he simulated karate chops in the air. Nobody laughed as I said with a stoic face, “You just made my point.”
Without being emotional or judgmental, I explained to the group that comments like this can have serious impact on our people’s performance, trust, and morale. This is no different than making benign sexist remarks in front of women, and then telling them to learn how to take a joke. I made clear that it is incumbent upon us leaders to identify and eliminate toxic behaviors in our workplace. While I wasn’t sure if I got through to all of them, they fully understood my expectations of promoting a positive working environment.
My validation came an hour later when the manager walked into my office to apologize and talk about what happened. Through honest and frank discussion, he was willing to learn about himself and improve as a leader. We discussed the ways in which he can become more aware of his blind spots, improve his leadership, and better support the employees.
Do not think that this can’t happen in your workplace because I’ve seen it in both public and private sectors. This is a scenario that leaders could face in any organization across all industries. While leadership styles and solutions may vary, these leadership elements are key to dealing with insensitive comments at work:
Clearly communicate your expectations—This might seem like a no-brainer and we hear it all the time. But do your employees really know what your expectations are?
Awareness—Be aware of yourself and your employees to identify and highlight blind spots. You will never resolve issues you cannot see. Work with other leaders in your organization to hold each other accountable.
Integrity—Lack of integrity enables poor behavior. Don’t let your moral courage go to waste. Speak up for those whose voices might be stymied by bullies at work. If the employee lacks integrity and he is toxic to the team, then let him go.
Nip it in the bud—If you hear someone making insensitive comments, address the issue right away. Don’t let it slide because it will only get worse.
Make it a teaching/learning opportunity—If they are blind to their negative behavior but they are willing to learn, then provide mentorship and coaching—without judgement. However, don’t stop there…assign them employees to mentor. There is nothing more powerful than learning from someone’s personal growth and experience.