Books for the News, Sociology

The Office offers insight into issues of workplace diversity

jacket image
An article on the NPR website on workplace diversity poses the question “should The Office be used in HR training?” And while anyone familiar with the show might find the question itself quite laughable, the article quotes Sheri Leonardo, senior vice president for human resources at Ogilvy Public Relations saying “as an HR person, I sometimes cringe… some of the stuff is so outlandish, politically incorrect, morally incorrect and everything else—but at the same time I say, ‘God, I would love to take clips of this and use it for training, because it’s so perfect.'”
Ogilvy argues that The Office, where the exaggerated insensitivity and ignorance of its characters serves as the basis for much of its humor, offers some entertaining insight into issues of workplace diversity and often employs scenarios that Ogilvy says are not too far from what people often encounter in the real world.
NPR quotes Jean Mavrelis, author with Thomas Kochman of a recent book on such issues, Corporate Tribalism: White Men/White Women and Cultural Diversity at Work, who shares Ogilvy’s view that despite claims that we now live in a “post-racial America,” workplace diversity is still a major issue. Mavrelis remarks: “You’d be surprised how many executives are sent to our diversity class to be ‘sensitized’ so they don’t have to be fired.” The article continues:

But if an office environment is too restrictive, Mavrelis says, that tension is often counterproductive.
“The worst climate for learning about diverse others,” she said, “is one in which white males are afraid that someone will call the diversity hot line and end their careers if they make a ‘mistake.'”

“It is [also] critical to create a climate where diversity ‘mistakes’ can be made and people can be learners,” Mavrelis says.
That means that someone who has been accused of being insensitive, or even racist, should be ready to apologize—and to learn from the experience. The key is that people consider the impact words and deeds have on people with different social and cultural experiences from their own.
‘We’ve been able to move people to a place where they go from taking cross-cultural communication breakdowns personally, to asking themselves, ‘I wonder if something cultural is going on here,’ which changes the conversations,” Mavrelis said.
Still, anyone who might be tempted to use Office-style humor to bridge cultural barriers in the workplace ought to be very careful.
“Humor is the least effective way to build relationships at work, yet having a sense of humor is critical,” she said.
“The episode of The Office where they celebrate ‘Diversity Day’ [see the clip below] is hysterical,” Mavrelis said, “and shows how difficult it is to discuss diversity when people don’t know what they don’t know.”
The best way for a white boss like Michael Scott to build cross-cultural relationships at work, Mavrelis says, is to help a diverse group of employees develop their careers.
“That builds trust, which in turn builds goodwill for when white folks do make the inevitable diversity blunders,” she said.

Read the full article on the NPR website.