Cam Newton’s Slip of the Tongue Is a Timely Lesson on Discrimination in the Workplace

Carolina Panthers Quarterback Cam Newton got a swift lesson in workplace civility recently, and we can all learn from the experience. When sportswriter Jourdan Rodrigue asked Newton a question about the routes, or patterns, run by one of his receivers, the quarterback chuckled and said, “It’s funny to hear a female talk about routes.”

Rodrigue requested an apology, and when Newton’s immediate response wasn’t satisfactory, she took to Twitter, accusing him of sexism in the workplace – her workplace.

It was a seemingly offhand comment, the kind of remark that a quarterback might make to his male teammates in the locker room – and Newton has since apologized. But the Panthers quarterback said it live on television and the response was quick and unequivocal. Rodrigue requested an apology, and when Newton’s immediate response wasn’t satisfactory, she took to Twitter, accusing him of sexism in the workplace – her workplace. She received an outpouring of support and even though Newton issued a stronger apology, at least one sponsor said it would no longer use him in promotions.

What can we learn from this episode? First, we are seeing women speak out (as opposed to speak up) more frequently. Second, this is a perfect example of what’s happening in the workplace today – and the challenges facing employers in trying to eliminate workplace harassment and discrimination in all their forms. Newton probably had no idea how his comment would be interpreted, but for a young female reporter trying to succeed in a male-dominated profession, his withering response had the effect of making her feel ostracized, excluded and denigrated in front of her colleagues. Whether he knew it or not, the comment was intended to send a message that she is not one of the men.

Download White Paper: Managing Workplace Harassment - 2017 Trends

The incident with Newton occurred right around the time the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission launched a new live training program designed to help employers reduce incivility, which EEOC Commissioner Chai Feldblum calls “the gateway drug to workplace harassment.” Focusing on mutual respect, the program’s goal is to reduce far more expensive and disruptive legal action by teaching employers and employees how to identify the warning signs of sexual harassment in everyday exchanges in the workplace.

Harassment Training Is Important, but Not Enough

We all should get behind effective harassment training – and it’s a big part of the compliance ecosystem. It can help prevent episodes like the Newton incident by encouraging employees to consider the impact of their comments before they say them. But effective training is not a check-the-box exercise. It’s just one component in a holistic program to build a workplace culture of respect and tolerance.

Creating such a company culture isn’t an easy task. As our 2017 Ethics and Compliance Training Benchmark Report shows, learner fatigue and cynicism are still major barriers to building an effective compliance culture. Plus, employees entering the workplace today were raised in a culture that is both sexually progressive and awash in negative social cues and behavior, from exploitative online pornography to campus sexual assault. We expect workplace training to fix the problem, and when it doesn’t work, we say it has failed.

So, What Can Be Done?

How do you build an organizational culture that is both tolerant of diverse viewpoints and intolerant of disrespectful or harassing speech?

Start by acknowledging that the line between a misunderstood comment and sexual harassment can be blurry. Teaching employees how to steer clear of Foreign Corrupt Practices Act violations is relatively painless by comparison: It starts with telling people bribery doesn’t work, and that they shouldn’t do it. Most people understand that corruption isn’t OK.

The territory of sexual and racial politics is far more complicated, because of the diverse backgrounds of people in the workplace. Some were raised in cultures that discourage female professional advancement or the mixing of the races. Organizations should borrow a page from the old Emily Post manners books of a century ago, when people were advised against talking politics at dinner parties.

Principles to consider for the workplace:

  • Hold people accountable for what they say and how they act – that means when someone makes an offensive remark address it
  • Don’t blame the victim who speaks up – don’t second guess his or her motives, don’t pre-judge their complaint, slam their professional skills, or treat them with disrespect. They did what you asked them to do (they spoke up) so treat them with the respect they deserve for doing it
  • Teach employees to think before they speak. If a comment has the potential to make others feel excluded or undermined, keep your thoughts to yourself
  • Encourage a speak-up culture where workers aren’t afraid to tell management when they feel insulted or belittled – don’t just say you want this, make it a reality

Tolerant, but Vigilant

To recap: civility matters. And everyone plays a role in setting the tone. It’s almost 2018. If our employees don’t understand what’s offensive at this point, we haven’t done our jobs properly.

Cam Newton certainly learned a lesson the hard way about civility and respect, with the help of a social media environment that amplified his miscue a millionfold. Your organization is vulnerable to the same internet-driven response if you don’t identify the gateway drug to harassment – incivility – and build a culture that discourages it.

Download Sample Policy: Global Anti-Harassment & Bullying Sample Policy

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