Is Your Organization Prepared to Deal with Controversy?

News Updates

High-ranking executives and officials have an added burden of being the face of an organization. Most chief diversity and inclusion (D&I) officers understand this challenge and must deal with it in both their professional and personal lives. This responsibility can become a source of controversy when a D&I officer’s actions or personal opinions don’t exactly align with an employer’s policies.

A recent incident at Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C., illustrates this dilemma and raises the question: When do the duties of executives as representatives of an organization end and their rights and duties as private citizens begin?

In March 2012, Maryland legalized gay marriage. In July 2012, Gallaudet’s Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer Angela McCaskill signed a petition that requested a statewide referendum on this statute. When university officials learned that she had signed the petition, they suspended her from her job with pay.

Maryland citizens may petition the state government to request that recently enacted legislation be approved or rejected through a statewide referendum process. The petition that McCaskill signed had gathered enough signatures to place the same-sex law on the November 2012 statewide ballot.

T. Alan Hurwitz, Gallaudet’s president, placed McCaskill on administrative leave after a faculty member saw the diversity officer’s name on the petition and complained to the administration, claiming that her action ran counter to the university’s commitment to diversity and inclusion.

Gallaudet is a private liberal arts university for students who are deaf or hard-of-hearing. McCaskill is the first black woman to earn a Ph.D. from Gallaudet.

Historically, Gallaudet students and faculty have supported the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people, but were split by the university’s decision. Outside groups for and against same-sex marriage criticized Gallaudet for violating McCaskill’s right to sign the petition and to voice her concerns regarding a law.

McCaskill told reporters that she was not anti-gay and that she had signed the petition because she felt the citizens of Maryland should have the opportunity to vote on the measure.

Officials with the university’s administration acknowledged that McCaskill had the right to sign the petition, but said her action could be in direct conflict with her job duties.

“Because of her position at Gallaudet as our chief diversity officer, many individuals at our university were understandably concerned and confused by her action. They wanted to know if her action interferes with her ability to perform her job,” Hurwitz said in a written statement. “I placed her on paid administrative leave as a prudent action to provide the university—and Dr. McCaskill—time to consider this question after the emotions of first reactions subsided.”

Some news reports said McCaskill would be reinstated after the results of the state referendum were final. On Nov. 6, 2012, Maryland citizens voted to make same-sex marriages legal in the state.

When reached for comment on the issue, a spokesperson for Gallaudet said that President Hurwitz and the university’s board of trustees had not yet determined when McCaskill would be reinstated.

Why the Gallaudet Suspension Matters

The issue has drawn the attention of HR and diversity professionals around the country and has left many asking if Gallaudet has adhered to its policies supporting diversity and inclusion. The website for the school’s office of diversity and inclusion states: “Gallaudet University is committed to providing ongoing opportunities for increasing awareness, facilitating open sharing of thoughts and ideas, and to provide a supportive and enriching environment for students, faculty and staff.”

“Inclusion means that you include and respect everyone within your organization,” said Michael Streeter, president of Michael Streeter and Associates, a diversity consulting group in Webster, N.Y., and a former diversity officer with Eastman Kodak Co. “Some people say that character is what you do or how you act when no one is watching. But, often integrity is defined by how a person or an organization responds to controversy.”

According to Streeter, businesses often don’t respond well when controversy arises. Diversity issues spark controversy, then organizations respond hastily and in ways that compound the problem.

“I’ve seen it happen many times,” Streeter said. “Businesses come up with diversity statements that say all the right things, but as soon as something controversial happens, they aren’t prepared to deal with it. And they end up backing away or doing something that runs counter to their stated positions of supporting diversity and inclusion,” he told SHRM Online.

First and foremost, Streeter says, organizations must be fully committed to diversity and inclusion and prepared to respond accordingly when controversy arises.

“Not having a plan in place or being prepared to respond to a controversial situation is one of the biggest mistakes businesses make, and they make this mistake all the time,” said Streeter.

Another key issue is separating personal issues from business, according to a former chief diversity officer of a Fortune 500 company.

Leaders have to be able to separate business and personal issues, said the former diversity officer, who asked not to be identified in this article. “Most of the time, your personal opinions and ideas will coincide with the organization’s stances, because it’s your job to support diversity and inclusion,” the source told SHRM Online. “But, when opinions do diverge, then that shouldn’t become a reason to suspend or fire anyone—unless it’s something egregious.”

Streeter and other sources consulted for this article agreed that McCaskill was acting on her own and exercising her personal right as a citizen to sign a petition and vote her conscience.

“It can be a fine line for someone who represents the diversity and inclusion program for an organization, but I don’t see that any line was crossed in this situation,” said Streeter. “Signing a petition as a private citizen and signing a document or statement as a representative of an organization are two very different things.”

Streeter and other sources acknowledge that same-sex marriage is a hot button issue for many and that they understand why McCaskill’s action would draw a lot of attention.

“It’s precisely these kinds of situations employers must be prepared to react to,” said Streeter. “It comes down to an important choice: either responding to appease people who are upset by a certain situation, or reacting to support the ideas and principles to which your organization has openly stated a commitment.”

Bill Leonard is senior writer for SHRM. To read the original article, please click here.