Written by Jon Buchler, FEI EAP Counselor

(This is the second of a two-part blog. You can read the first entry here.)

Upon learning of the serious problems at one of their assembly facilities, the CEO of our fictional company hastily calls for a meeting of top management, including the vice president of human resources. The facility manager of the location in question was asked to attend and describe in detail the state of tension. The group decided a letter should be written by the CEO to the facility employees. This letter was seen as a way of responding rapidly and making the company’s concerns and positions known to all employees. The group also decided the CEO would travel to the facility for a meeting with all employees as soon as possible. The group further decided to consult their corporate legal counsel concerning the situation and the action steps they intended to implement.

At the recommendation of the VP of human resources, the group decided to reach out to their EAP representative and ask that she participate in subsequent meetings. The group agreed that any following action steps should be developed after consultation with legal counsel and inclusion of their EAP representative.

The CEO letter circulated to all employees at the facility acknowledged the current tensions and clearly stated the company’s full commitment to maintaining a safe workplace for all employees. Soon after the letter was distributed, an all-staff meeting was held at the facility. The CEO presented the same material included in the statement. He acknowledged the challenges of working harmoniously in a diverse workplace, but was very clear about the company’s expectation that all employees would work together to support a culture of respect and mutual support of all employees. The facility manager endorsed the statement and noted his intent to carry it out. The VP of human resources shared the company’s relevant policies and procedures for addressing safety and harassment concerns. Both the facility manager and the HR staff noted their open door policy and encouraged all employees to come to them with concerns.

Staff were also informed that an EAP counselor would be onsite two days a week at all plants and would be available to meet with any employee. Throughout the course of deliberations, the representative was helpful to the management group in pointing out that the problem they wanted to address was truly a community-wide problem manifesting itself in the workplace. She noted that prejudices were simply a fact of life in human relationships and that the company would be over-reaching itself if it attempted to change the mindset of employees via workplace activities. She also noted that in her role as an EAP counselor, she could informally work with employees to help them see each coworker as a unique human being, rather than a member of a racial or religious group.

The representative let the management team know she could seek to lay the groundwork for improved relationships in informal and more subtle ways as well as learn more about which employees were having the greatest difficulty with the presence of Muslim staff so that she could work with them.

The management team also decided to create work teams at each facility, staffed by the HR employee onsite and, at the assembly plant, by the EAP counselor. Each team would include seven employees. The focus of the team would be on working conditions and workplace relationships. Two Muslim employees were included in the work team at the assembly facility where tensions had risen.

The company’s rapid response and strong follow-up activities were successful in averting an escalation of conflict in the facility and deterred the need to take disciplinary action against workers. There were still those employees who were unhappy to work alongside Muslims and times when the tensions manifested themselves in cool dispositions toward the Muslims workers.

Over time, the work teams established in the plant proved to be an excellent tool to surface employee concerns and demonstrate the company’s serious interest in their well-being as workers. Overall morale improved as the company accommodated a number of changes requested by the teams.

The presence of the EAP counselor proved invaluable in encouraging employees to feel more connected to the company and to become more engaged with coworkers. As she got to know them and took interest in their lives, a perceptible improvement in morale occurred. Relationships became less formal and more relaxed and engaged. Most importantly, the activities of the EAP counselor, together with the facility manager and the HR staff, brought about a significant reduction in tension in the workforce. A number of employees reached out to the Muslim workers, who appreciated those efforts. Equally important, word spread that it was “not cool” to disparage the Muslim workers.

Any situation like the one I’ve depicted requires thoughtful consideration of relevant laws. An active relationship with corporate counsel is essential. For example, the decision to afford the Muslim employees a change in their break schedule to accommodate morning prayers couldn’t have been put in place without consulting the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which requires that employers make reasonable accommodations to employees religious beliefs or practices, so long as they don’t impose more than a de minimis cost or burden on the employer.

At times when employees’ cherished beliefs and even prejudices manifest themselves in the workplace, it is important for employers to recognize the limits of their role. They have an obligation to maintain a safe workplace free of harassment, but they don’t have an appropriate role in changing attitudes. Workplace behavior is one thing; beliefs are another.

Finally, companies can choose to be good corporate citizens by supporting community initiatives which are consistent with their obligation to maintain a safe workplace in which all workers display respect for one another.

If you have questions or concerns about the impact of community-based issues on your own workforce, please contact your EAP today.