Leadership

Lessons for Associations in Gallaudet University Controversy

By / Oct 22, 2012 (photo by Daquella Manera/Flickr)

The controversy at Gallaudet University involving its chief diversity officer is something associations should tune in to and learn from.

Associations might want to pay attention to recent events at Gallaudet University.

Administrators at the school for the deaf and hard of hearing, widely known for the diversity of its community, are under fire in the media for placing Chief Diversity Officer Angela McCaskill on paid administrative leave after she signed a petition supporting placement of a referendum on Maryland’s gay-marriage law on the November ballot. The topic is also sparking debate on campus.

If you’re really not representing the organization’s philosophy, then you basically are falling down on the job.

The Washington Post reports that both opponents and supporters of same-sex marriage say Gallaudet punished McCaskill for exercising her First Amendment rights and are asking the university to reinstate her. McCaskill says she already considers herself fired.

What can associations learn from the controversy? Plenty, said Eric Peterson, manager of diversity and inclusion for the Society for Human Resource Management.

 “If you’re hiring someone to be a chief diversity officer, I think that there are certain parts of that job description that you can make very clear to folks who are coming into that position,” he said. “If supporting the LGBT population is important to your organization, and you’ve already stated that in your diversity value proposition, then it might be a good idea to ask anybody who’s coming into that job, ‘Are you fully prepared to support this population?’”

Screening potential diversity officers to make sure that their value set aligns with the organization’s can help. “Those are, I think, fair questions to ask, because it is part of what they’ll be doing on a day-to-day basis,” Peterson said.

But even with careful hiring practices, controversies happen. How should you handle it?

“There’s no real easy answer,” said Peterson. “I think the thing that must be done is to manage expectations for the future, both with that individual and also with the community at large, and be very transparent about it.”

Staff members, especially those in highly visible positions, need to understand that they represent the organization, said Peterson: “If you’re really not representing the organization’s philosophy, then you basically are falling down on the job.”

This is especially true “when you’re in the diversity space, when you’re commenting on people with regards to race, gender, sexual orientation, religion, disability, veteran status, marital status, parental status, etc.,” he said. “You are representing the organization that you work for, not just yourself.”

How would you have handled the situation at Gallaudet University? And what are you doing to prevent such a controversy from flaring up at your organization?

Rob Stott

Rob Stott is a contributing editor for Associations Now. More »

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