Well, it has happened before and I suppose it will happen again. Right in the middle of a recent speech on diversity, a woman in the audience found it amusing to tell an ethnic joke. It wasn’t a horrible joke, but it wasn’t appropriate either. I won’t repeat it here, but suffice it to say it lay somewhere between the tone of “there was a priest, a rabbi, and a minister” and something that would be in bad taste even among friends.
This was a tough situation. I didn’t want to embarrass this woman. For one thing, I had no idea whether her intent was innocent clumsiness or if she meant to be disrespectful to the group referred to in the joke. On the other hand, I knew she had presented me with a priceless opportunity to model appropriate diversity behavior. After all, one of the most common diversity questions is: How do I respond when someone in my workplace says or does something disrespectful of another group?
Luckily, I had the presence of mind to sort it out on my feet. Saying nothing, I looked at the woman briefly so that the audience knew that I had heard the comment and then I moved to the other side of the stage. In short, I ignored her. It was a reprimand which, although gentle, communicated the important message that unkind and inappropriate jokes have no place in the workplace. At the same time, I modeled the principle that, when it comes to diversity, “innocent ‘til proven guilty” still applies. It would have been as wrong to accuse this woman of bias on the basis of one joke as it would have been to pretend that nothing inappropriate had happened.
Sondra Thiederman is a speaker and author on diversity, bias-reduction, and cross-cultural issues. She is the author of Making Diversity Work: Seven Steps for Defeating Bias in the Workplace (Chicago: Dearborn Press, 2003) which is available at her web site or at www.Amazon.com. She can be contacted at:
Sondra Thiederman, Ph.D.
4585 48th Street
San Diego, CA 92115
Phones: 619-583-4478 / 800-858-4478
www.Thiederman.com / STPhD@Thiederman.com
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