Managing the rise of the ‘woke’ workplace …
A few months ago we wrote about the role of HR in environmental sustainability, urging HR departments to take time to fully understand their role in relation to environmental issues. Now we thought it time to take one step further to better understand ‘woke’ and what that might mean for HR.
What is Woke?
So let’s start with what is woke? It’s a term that’s been around for decades and it means ‘awake’. In this case ‘awake’ to social issues.
Over the past year we will all have heard the term ‘woke’ to describe those in our society who demonstrate social awareness, think Prince William and Harry promoting mental health awareness. By and large society deems it ‘good’ to be woke. However, in these days of extremes and intense focus, we do have a body of people who are sometimes mocked for being ‘too woke’; (think Prince Harry being mocked for telling everyone last year that they shouldn’t have more than 2 children to protect the planet).
In some ways this conflict – is it a positive or is it a negative – is very similar situation to the attitudes many of us have about political correctness – there are those who gently advocate respect for others and those who are mocked for being too ‘PC’.
Where is the fine line to be drawn in the workplace between responsible ‘woke’ behaviour and behaviour that starts to create hostility, frustration or a lack of respect – as its then that HR has to step in to sort out the employee relations.
We have enough conflict in the modern workplace as it is and ‘woke’ behaviours taken to the extreme are just another element for HR to understand and manage.
Let us give a few examples:
- You encourage all your staff to help you identify ways as a business that you can care for the environment more but then you have several employees who barricade in your non electric, diesel guzzling company vehicles as part of a protest. Where do you stand as a business – do you internally praise their behaviour as its in line with your stated values or do you say that they have gone too far?
- The Old Vic in London recently got some bad press for being too woke. For many years women had complained there were insufficient toilets. A big refurb had promised more toilets. But during the refurb someone made a decision to then make all toilets unisex. Given that women cannot use urinals there was now a situation where the men had more choice then before and the women now had to share their limited space with men. The Old Vic, in trying to be ‘woke’ to social issues around gender identify, ended up infuriating those people it had originally said it wanted to support.
- Non fad vegans (i.e. those who aren’t just vegan as a dietary choice/fashion), naturally have strong views about the treatment of animals and the environment. They are ‘woke’. However, if you have a vegan at work who then demands special treatment every time you provide catering (biscuits, drinks – very few wines are in fact vegetarian or vegan – lunches, take aways if you are working late etc.) then there is a danger that this is the person whose ‘wokeness’ will begin to create friction with colleagues. As one of our team heard recently ‘by all means be a Vegan, but don’t expect the whole world to focus on just your needs, can’t you sort yourself out sometimes?’.
- At a recent social gathering it was observed that an individual who arrived late then asked the person seated in one of the comfy chairs to move so that she could have the comfy seat. She said she had chronic fatigue and she needed the seat for her back. He said ‘no’ and said if she wanted a particular seat she should have arrived early as he had done and also that there were plenty of other suitable chairs. She then kicked up a fuss and accused him of disability discrimination. Those observing this altercation accused the individual with chronic fatigue of demanding and expecting too much. However, one person said that the seat should have been given up as her needs superseded his.
We are curious as to whether her needs did in fact supersede his – was that a fact or was it simply a perception? Or was it just the easy way out to avoid conflict?
Some might say that in this world full of people who stamp their feet and insist that their way is the right way, the ‘woke’ way, that others are often intimidated into agreeing. But is that not bullying? Can woke people be bullies? Or do you in fact have to bully people to ‘woke’ them up to the realities of issues such as the environment? In which case is ‘woke’ bullying acceptable as it serves a greater good? We’re not sure the employment tribunals have addressed that particular kind of bullying yet!
But bringing this back to the workplace, the question of course is will your HR run in fear of being sued by someone for something and bend over backwards everytime someone declares a ‘need’ or ‘interest’ or will your HR team sit down to thrash out the new rules of engagement in our modern world regarding what will be accommodated and what will not?
Is Woke the same as Political correctness?
Just to be clear, ‘woke’ refers to knowledge, understanding and awareness. Politically correct is about how we behave or speak.
Clearly the one sometimes follows on from the other!
In September 2017 the term woke was added to the Oxford English Dictionary, along with 500 other words, senses and subentries including, Augmentation and Fatberg…and more recently in 2019, Confirmation Bias, Fake News and Upper-Class-Twit.
The term woke can be coined back to the 60’s and was defined as:Well-informed, up-to-date, (Man, I’m woke’) 1962 New York Times Magazine, 20 May, pg. 45
Do you know what ‘woke- washing’ is?
Woke washing is about corporates and/or individuals cashing in on the money that can be made from being ‘woke’. Is your business getting in on the act? Think last December when M&S enhanced their classic BLT sarnie to a LGBT one, basically the same sandwich but with the colours of the LGBTQ flag. That’s cashing in/woke washing! Or when Barclays put Tom Daley into a shirt with their logo and pictured him looking out over Gay Pride – more woke washing.
It’s a tricky way forward for businesses as the positive PR can easily be undone by negative PR that arises from a perception of insincerity.
The woke way forward in business…
Even for those of us who work in HR, it’s a hard job to keep up with the latest ‘woke’ behaviours and demands. We’ve lost count of all the ‘isms’ (think ageism, sexism, veganism etc) that could land you in the employment tribunal dock, plus all the things you have to do to stay inclusive, woke and legal in this complex world.
So how long before society says ‘enough is enough’? Commuters taking the law into their own hands to regain control of the tube when protesters had glued themselves on it last Autumn was pretty unusual for Britain so perhaps, even with the environment, there is the beginning a movement of ‘enough is enough’. We’ll see!
Even Barack Obama agreed last year that the word ‘woke’ is messy and he voiced his worries that certain people believe that being judgemental and critical of others will drive change.
This brings us back to the bullying aspect of ‘woke’ and its message of ‘I am right and value driven’ and, if you don’t agree with me, you are ‘wrong and as a result less worthy in our society’. We’ve seen this manifested in universities that ban speakers who are not ‘woke’ enough and in businesses who punish those who appear to step out of the ‘woke’ line.
If you know anything of Group Think you will understand how dangerous it to ban from the ‘group’ all those who do not agree or have a different opinion. Ironically, Woke, which should be a real driver for diversity and inclusion is in fact fast becoming the enemy of diversity and inclusion – if you don’t think and act like me, given that I am ‘woke’, then you have no place in this organisation.
This is dangerous indeed and this is why we say that HR departments need to understand this concept and get their heads together to agree a strategy on how to deal with complaints, bullying, grievances, its impact on D&I initiatives (Diversity and Inclusion) and all the other fallout from the current ‘woke’ trend.
Time to have a meeting? Here’s a few pointers for what you might discuss…
What do you think?
- What dangers does a culture of ‘woke’ pose to your inclusion goals and targets?
- Are some dominant ‘woke’ thinkers in your business creating a Group Think culture? Who are they and how will you address this trend so many businesses are seeing?
- Will you be as tough on ‘woke’ bullying as all other kinds of bullying?
- Is there a danger that some minority groups in your workplace are demanding that their needs supersede those of the majority? How will you deal with this?
- How do your corporate values align with the values that are increasingly fashionable with those who consider themselves ‘woke’? Is a problem emerging that needs addressing?
This Blast has been designed to give you some food for thought for the coming year. If you are a thinking organisation that strives to continually develop and think that our style at Jaluch is a good fit for you in respect of any training and development initiatives you may have, then please do get in touch.
Jaluch also offers bespoke e learning development, as well as a wide range of HR support such as with grievances, subject access requests (DSARs) , mediation or tribunal responses. Please do get in touch for our friendly, commercial HR and training services.