More than ever, American workplaces are emphasizing diversity by targeting hires of different races, religions, ethnicities, genders, cultural and educational backgrounds, work experience, etc. This variety promotes different viewpoints, better problem-solving, a just a more dynamic workplace. Generally, this results in businesses attracting better talent, reducing turnover, and improving the brand and reputation.
But, with different backgrounds may come a different appreciation of social norms.
I have an example for you.
Over the weekend, I read this story and this story by Julia Ingram and Claire Wang. Ms. Ingram and Ms, Wang report that a medical school professor, who from came to the United States from Colombia, was fired last week “after a University investigation found that he had violated University code of conduct policies related to sexual harassment, misconduct and assault.”
The articles indicate that the University investigation appear to have confirmed complaints from victims that the medical school professor had attempt unsolicited sexual acts with his female employees, among many other instances of harassment and misconduct.
The medical school professor issued a statement in which he apologized to anyone he had offended while denying that he had engaged in any sexual or romantic relationships with anyone affiliated with the medical school. But, he stopped short of saying that he did nothing wrong.
Instead, he talked about his failure to appreciate social norms:
The social norms in the U.S. are evolving and quite different than those from my culture and homeland. I did not sufficiently appreciate that difference. It is my responsibility to change and be both mindful and respectful of the boundaries of personal space and I pledge to do just that.
Yes, boundaries of personal space can be an issue. Indeed, the onus would be on the medical school professor to appreciate the impact that his actions — even if unintended — would have on others. That’s because allegations of sexual harassment are viewed through the prism of the victim and how the complained-of behavior would negatively impact a reasonable person in the victim’s shoes.
For most of us, personal space issues at work are nothing new. Open your employee handbook or think back to the last sexual harassment training you may have attended. I’m guessing that getting too close to others was addressed.
But, are differences in social norms addressed to0? If you have a diverse workplace with employees from different backgrounds and cultures, it’s important that they appreciate the types of behaviors that are and are not acceptable at work.
Consider this part of your curriculum for your anti-harassment education and training.