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June 02, 2008
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A Different Kind of Diversity

The word diversity has been chanted in public- and private-sector HR departments as well as in the media for an entire generation of HR careers.

It shares DNA with affirmative action and workplace equity. It has come to mean that an inherent value exists in organizations that promote the hiring and promotion of persons in what are known as “protected groups.”

Protected groups are those with the demographic characteristics outlined in civil rights law which states basically — very basically — that employment decisions are to be based on job-related criteria and not based on characteristics such as race, religion, color, gender, disability and more. The fundamental idea is that workplaces whose employees are demographically similar to those in the broader labor market reflect an equitable workplace, and one that is in the best interests of success in serving their customers.

The HR Doctor fundamentally agrees with this idea. In a world absent of discrimination, it would be reasonable to expect that a workplace would have female employees or black employees in roughly the same proportion as can be found among qualified workers in the labor market. To the extent that this is not true, an employer should review policies, tests, job requirements, sources of advertising and more to assess why this is not the case. Thereafter, appropriate actions can be taken to expand the pool of job applicants over time to better reflect the demographics of the labor force.

Having said all that, however, and having had decades of court cases, litigation, threats of litigation, federal compliance agencies and more out in the HR environment, there still remains one segment of the population not fully represented in the diversity debate. This is a portion of the population which is hard to quantify and harder yet to deal with at work or in your own neighborhood.  This group is the “coping impaired.” 

We all are familiar with people who have a profound inability to deal with the issues in their own lives, let alone in the lives of others. They are close at any given moment to a meltdown, financially or emotionally, if just one more complexity is added to their daily lives.

This difficulty is thoroughly recognized by anyone who works in the very noble and undervalued, if not also underpaid, world of the social services. It is apparent to every physician and to many others in health care — it is certainly familiar to HR professionals.

The HR Doctor suspects that a coping deficit is a major factor in one area of America’s fastest-growing population, prisons and county jails. It is clearly evident following any major disasters such as an earthquake, a flood or a hurricane. Those events give rise to hordes of people who have unrealistic demands upon their neighbors, their insurance companies (if they have one to begin with), and certainly on local governments or FEMA.

However, it doesn’t take a major disaster to witness a parade of the “coping impaired” population. Just watch daytime television.

Some of the fat cats of that medium, such as Jerry Springer and the producers of World Wrestling Entertainment, are paid great amounts of money to provide showcase opportunities every day of the week. America is as addicted to watching the “coping impaired” as is it towards taking on credit card debt or lining up to seek the latest prescription drugs from our doctor’s offices.

Even the HR Doctor must admit to an impaired ability to resist the latest tech gadgets arriving in electronics stores. I expect acknowledgement, at any moment, from the senior executives at Best Buy or Circuit City when they proudly announce that I will have a reserved parking place at the local stores. 

Even the venerable Equal Employment Opportunity Commission does not require that employers provide annual reporting forms to be filled out listing the number of coping-impaired employees in each department. At least that is not yet a requirement.  

Clearly, some of the coping-impaired population is already protected by civil rights laws if their difficulty is certified or regarded as an outgrowth of a covered disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act, including various conditions of mental illness. However, that’s really not what the HR Doctor is speaking about in this article.

Rather, in most workplaces, there is a percentage of people using the “rule of the vital few,” about 20 percent, who have difficulty coping at home and bring those difficulties into the workplace. The result can be outbursts of poor performance or behavior warranting coaching, counseling or disciplinary action. 

Often, these are ignored along with phrases such as “that’s just Oscar,” “you know how he is” or “ignore him and he will go away.” These are behaviors that the HR Doctor has written about in his book Don’t Walk by Something Wrong!  These are the behaviors and performance issues which, if walked by, will manifest later in much more difficult and higher-liability areas such as threats of violence, bullying or sexual harassment. 

It may appear to be easier to ignore coping failures when a new assignment is given that provokes an inappropriate workplace response, when property is damaged due to some negligent action or when a person appears at work impaired due to drug or alcohol abuse. However, the liabilities are growing, and employers are engaged in malpractice when they simply ignore or take ineffective action in such cases. 

The proper thing to do is to practice a model of “affirmative defense.”  Begin with a review of all high-liability policies — those related to violent behavior, bullying, harassment, race discrimination, etc. Ensure that all employees are aware of the policies, are trained in them and sign a receipt acknowledging that they understand their responsibilities. Provide a special dose of higher-intensity training on responsibility for supervisors and managers. Have an effective complaint procedure and a “no retaliation” component to that policy. Provide refresher training at least annually.

Ensure that managers immediately report their concerns and worries about performance and behavior at work to a proactive HR Department or other internal agency. Have a great EAP Program and links to Fitness for Duty evaluations by a licensed forensic psychologist as well as strong and clear substance abuse testing protocols. 

Do all these things and liabilities will be reduced. The organization’s attorneys will be proud of you for increasing the odds that they might actually win a case now and then. Ignore the liabilities, and the attorneys will smile — especially the plaintiff’s attorneys — because you will have helped them keep ahead of the rising cost of private university tuition rates and orthodontic treatment for their children.

Two final notes for your consideration: First, take steps in your own life to improve your personal ability to cope with unexpected frustrations and events. Have a good sense of humor. Take financial steps to safeguard yourself and your family. Develop an emergency fund. Have a will. Keep your spouse and even your children aware of how things are going for you. Let them be your friends and your biggest supporters. 

The HR Dog, Kamala, reminds me to mention the value of having a four-legged friend with whom you can share concerns and joys when the two-legged varieties are not available. Take positive steps to increase your capacity to be healthy and fit by establishing a relationship with a physician, by exercising, by eating better, by watching your weight and by putting out any thought you might have of smoking. Have a health care surrogate designation. Have a living will. Find opportunities for joy and growth in your life. Always keep learning and seize opportunities to have fun. 

Finally, be aware that on the horizon will be an application tool that will make it easier for employers to identify in advance applicants who may offer undue and inappropriate amounts of challenge and liability if they are hired. It’s a bit too soon to describe in this article what lies ahead, but technology will be able to help us in legal and ethical ways in the near future.


Phil Rosenberg
The HR Doctor •


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