What Lessons on Corporate Culture Can You Learn From the Navy Video Scandal?


By Sam Ali

The video scandal involving Navy Captain Owen Honors offers some useful lessons on the importance of setting a respectful and inclusive tone in the workplace.

Honors was permanently relieved of his duties as commanding officer of USS Enterprise Tuesday after it came to light that he produced and starred in sexist and homophobic videos that were broadcast on the aircraft carrier while he was serving in a top leadership position.

The fiasco offers a stark example of how workplace relations and collegiality can suffer when bigoted exchanges are allowed to occur uncensored.

John M. Robinson, chief diversity officer at the U.S. Department of State, recently told a DiversityInc audience in Washington, D.C., that when it comes to the principles of equity, fairness and inclusion, senior leaders in an organization set the tone–and their commitment must be visible and personal.

There's a reason why CEO Commitment is the most heavily weighted section of The DiversityInc Top 50 Companies for Diversity®, since it heavily influences all other diversity-management efforts.

"You don't get trickle-up diversity," Robinson said. "It has to start with the leadership. It must be visible and specific to your workforce. It should be personal."

Honors appeared in the career-ending videos, which include swearing, anti-gay slurs and images of naked women taking a shower, while he was the USS Enterprise's second-ranking officer back in 2006 and 2007, and they were broadcast on the ship's closed-circuit television. He took over as the ship's commander in May.

So, what do you do when coworkers, especially those in leadership positions, say bigoted or offensive things in the workplace? What do you do if you happen to work for someone like Capt. Honors or someone like him happens to work for you?

It's a tough dilemma for many in the workplace who may fear that calling out this type of offensive behavior, especially when it's coming from the top echelons, can backfire.

Once the Honors fiasco came to light after the Virginian-Pilot newspaper published edited versions of his lewd videos on its website last Saturday, the Navy's response was fairly swift–and sent a strong message. Within three days, he was relieved of his duties.

"The foundation of our success in the Navy lies in our ability to gain and hold the trust of our Sailors, including through personal example," said Adm. John C. Harvey Jr., commander of the U.S. Fleet Forces Command, in a written statement on Tuesday. "When confidence and trust are lost in those who lead, we fail."

See the controversial Navy videos here.

So what else should you be doing?

The DiversityInc Top 50 Companies for Diversity® focus on diversity training that goes way beyond mere compliance and is designed to create a more inclusive workplace and a "safe space" where everyone can reach potential, regardless of race/ethnicity, gender, age, orientation, disability or religion. And at the most progressive companies, it's a critical factor in heightening employee engagement, yielding increased productivity and, most importantly, innovation.

In fact, 88 percent of the DiversityInc Top 50 mandate diversity training for their managers and 64 percent mandate it for their entire workforces.

It's also a good idea to regularly expose senior leaders, including the CEO, to employee-resource groups, because it gives them valuable insights into the corporate culture they may otherwise not get.

Eighty-eight percent of DiversityInc Top 50 CEOs now meet regularly with ERG members, up from 84 percent last year and 37 percent five years ago.

What's most critical when it comes to these types of meetings is the ability of ERG members to speak candidly–and for action to be taken without repercussions.

The Southern Poverty Law Center has published a free manual on how to respond to everyday bigotry and how to create an office environment that models respect and tolerance. "Core-value statements and other policies sitting on dusty shelves don't establish an office's culture. Casual interactions do," the manual reads. "Whether you're a staffer or a manager or an executive, there's a role for you to play in setting a respect and unbiased tone in the office."

Among some of the actions you can consider:

Interrupt early. Workplace culture largely is determined by what is or isn't allowed to occur. If people are lax in responding to bigotry, then bigotry prevails. Speak up early and often in order to build a more inclusive environment.

Don't laugh. Meet a bigoted joke with silence and maybe a raised eyebrow.

Interrupt the laughter. "Why does everyone think that's funny?" Tell your coworkers why the "joke" offends you, that it feels demeaning and prejudicial. And don't hesitate to interrupt a "joke" with as many additional "no" messages as needed.

Go up the ladder. If the behavior persists, take your complaint up the management ladder. Find allies in upper management and call on them to help create and maintain an office environment free of bias and bigotry.

Band together. Like-minded colleagues also may form an alliance and then ask the colleague or supervisor to change his or her tone or behavior.

The SPLC manual also offers some advice for employees when the bias is coming from the top, as was the case in the Navy video incident.

"When bias comes from the boss, it's easy to assume nothing can be done," the manual reads. "The boss has all the power, right? Regardless of a company's size, nothing gets done without the worker; your power rests in this simple fact."

Among some of the response techniques you can use:

Focus on the company's people. "A lot of different kinds of people work for you and for this company. We come to work every day and give you our best. What you just said, does it really honor me and other people here?"

Tie tolerance to the bottom line. Remind your supervisor that when people feel valued and respected, a healthy and productive work environment emerges. "Is 'faggot' really a word we should be throwing around? We don't know who's gay and who's straight or who has a gay relative and who doesn't. I think that comment could really upset some people–and distract them from their work."

Go up the ladder. Consider your options, based on your supervisor's temperament and the office environment. If you're uncomfortable confronting the boss directly, consult your company's human-resources department to find out what harassment policies are in place and whether they apply.

Use incidents to teach tolerance. Psychologists at Harvard, the University of Virginia and the University of Washington have created Project Implicit, a series of tests designed to measure hidden or unconscious bias. You can take the tests at Project Implicit's website to see what hidden biases you and your coworkers may be harboring.

"A growing number of studies show a link between hidden biases and actual behavior," according to Teaching Tolerance, a project by the Southern Poverty Law Center, dedicated to reducing prejudice. "In other words, hidden biases can reveal themselves in action, especially when a person's effort to control behavior consciously flags under stress, distraction, relaxation or competition."