Josiah was not the type to stop by and chat, so I knew it was not a little issue.
“Come on in” I told him. I pointed to a chair next to my little conference table as I came out from behind the desk to join him. “Have a seat.”
“Are you havin’ a good summer?” Josiah did not usually make small talk. Just one more indication that this was something pretty important and uncomfortable for him.
“I am, thank you for asking. But I have the feeling you don’t want to talk with me about my summer. Am I right?”
Josiah began to talk to me about one of his teammates, Richard. They went through orientation together, a process that resulted in people getting to know one another pretty well. It was also designed to make sure that everyone understood the basic principles of the organization; Safety first, respect for your co-workers, and quality to be proud of.
Richard, by all measures, was a solid performer and a good find. He was the safety captain for his crew, and showed genuine concern for his coworkers when training them or confronting them about safer ways to perform their work. He never missed a quality audit, and never had a product rejection.
“He’s been a really good teammate, at least here.” Josiah was confusing me a bit. I still didn’t know why he was sitting in my office.
“Josiah, what’s this all about? You are sitting here telling me what a good job Richard is doing, but it appears you have a complaint. You want to get to the point?”
“I think he’s racist. I saw him at the mall last week , and I wanted to introduce him to my family. He was with some friends of his, and as I walked toward him. He saw me and immediately walked in another direction. He didn’t want to be associated with me at all.”
There was a silence as I took that in and thought about how to respond. “Are you here to complain?”
“Not exactly,” Josiah said. “I mean, I think he don’t really like workin’ with me.”
I had to ask the obvious question – “Do you think he treats you differently than anyone else at work? Does he avoid you or not share information with you? When you come to him with your maintenance schedule, does he listen to you and follow direction just as you do for him with safety issues?”
Josiah looked at me and gave an honest answer. “Mr. Tim, he don’t treat me any different than anyone else. He does what I ask him to for the maintenance work, and he gives me good information for my safety. I just think that outside of work, he’d rather not know me.”
I’m proud of the workplaces I’ve helped build, but I never thought we would change the world, just the workplace.
“Josiah,” I said, “I can’t promise you anything other than your right to a safe and respectful work environment. Some people can play the part at work, even if their personal views are different. I can’t tell Richard that he needs to respect you outside of work the same as he does here. I hope you understand that.”
“I do,” he replied. “I just don’t understand how he can be like that.”
“I think we all know that we hold each other to a pretty high standard of respect here, right?” I was trying to get him to think about the workplace. “I hope that it’s genuine and carries on outside as well, but just like I’m not about to tell you what you need to do after work, you need to respect Richard’s right to be who he is. Just as long as that doesn’t keep him from doing his job well.”
Josiah got up from the chair. “I knew that when y’all came to town, you would bring a new kind of workplace. I guess I was hoping that you would bring a new way of thinking to the community as well.”
We did challenges some local norms, I’m sure, in a small town in southern Mississippi. But what happens on a 40 acre tract of an industrial park just doesn’t spread automatically. Otherwise, everyone in Las Vegas would be Zappos! happy, right?