HR and the Line Between Tolerance and Acceptance

A few weeks ago I was volunteering an afternoon with the Humane Society Naples, helping set up a garage sale/flea market fundraiser they were holding the next day. One of the jobs that the group of volunteers had was to determine the asking price for the item being sold.

As the group was discussing whether to price low for swift sale or higher to try to maximize the amount raised for this non-profit, one of the other volunteers said, “You know someone is always going to try to Jew you down.”

No one in the room said a word. Including me.

I’m still beating myself up for not saying anything to this woman, and I can’t stop thinking about the incident. I keep wondering why no one else said anything, either. Would it have been different  if this was a group of paid workers?  What if she had said,  “There’s always going to be a wetback around trying to steal something”? Would that have changed the group reaction?

Sadly, I think that the answer is no on all counts. Even in a work situation with a group of paid employees in the discussion, bigoted remarks like this are often going to remain unchallenged.

HR pros often ask their employees to be tolerant of each other’s differences, to minimize tension and to avoid conflict between employees.  Tolerance is defined as “a fair, objective, and permissive attitude towards opinions and practices that differ from one’s own.”

But in the name of workplace harmony, we often accept behaviors and attitudes which are clearly racist or bigoted, and should not require us to be “tolerant.”  Have you ever heard someone in your workplace joke about gays, blacks, or Muslims? Yeah, me too.

In our heads we say we don’t accept these attitudes, because by definition acceptance means we approve. But if we don’t actually say anything to the offender –  it doesn’t matter if we disagree silently. We have approved of the racist or bigot by failing to show others our dislike. And HR, by encouraging employees to refrain from behaviors which cause tension, aggravates this problem. By encouraging tolerance, we are often encouraging people to accept.

Some things should never be acceptable. Like bigotry, racism, and discrimination.  And HR should be leading the charge to ensure that people don’t confuse tolerance with acceptance.