How to Lead a Diverse Security Workforce

Strategic Security

Illustration by Traci Daberko​​

How to Lead a Diverse Security Workforce
 

​We live in a time of increasing conflict and tension. The clash of civilizations, a frequent topic in college classrooms, seems to be playing out in vivid high definition on news channels across the globe. In nations around the world, citizens are verbally squaring off against friends and neighbors over political, racial, and social differences.

Security and public safety organizations are tasked with keeping the peace in our tumultuous societies. And these organizations are becoming as diverse as the communities they represent. As a result, many of these organizations' leaders—such as security managers—find themselves in the challenging situation of motivating and leading teams comprising individuals from an array of different racial, cultural, and ideological backgrounds.

This type of leadership is difficult. It often takes place in an environment unsettled by nearly constant and instantaneous communication. And in many workplaces, tension and the potential for conflict are increasing, for several reasons.

For one, the country's changing demographics and economic challenges mean that there are four generations of workers sharing offices today. This leads to a diverse pool of employees with widely varying generational morals, behaviors, and values.

In addition, nearly half of all Millennials come from ethnic minority groups. Given their diverse cultural backgrounds, these younger individuals may have differing views on sensitive workplace issues compared to their older and more traditional Baby Boomer colleagues, or even members of Generation X.

To some extent, each member of the team will view these issues through their own cultural identity. And so, issues involving whether or not they support or oppose recent shifts in societal norms can spur differences in opinion, which may create tension. Even worse, the manager may inadvertently trigger a conflict by taking a side. After all, managers too belong to a specific culture, ethnicity, or generational identity. 

With that in mind, what follows are some suggested best practices to help security managers lead a diverse workforce in today's chaotic environment. Of course, when sensitive issues arise in the workplace, there are no magic solutions or actions that guarantee successful resolution. However, keeping these principles in mind will help managers maintain self-awareness, fairness, and diplomacy. They will also help managers to be mindful of common human biases that can creep into actions and how to steer clear of them through honest self-examination.    ​

Respect Differences

I've known my best friend since we were freshmen in college, and we agree on most issues. Furthermore, when we do disagree, we've never fought over it. That has held true in the almost two decades we have known each other.

However, soon after last year's controversial rally in Charlottesville ended in the death of a civilian and two police officers, we found ourselves in a debate over the preservation of Civil War monuments and the broader national crisis between law enforcement and communities of color.

Prior to that debate, the racially related differences between us had ranged from invisible to comical. But as the discussion heated up, I found that even two close friends who stood as best men at each other's weddings could still stumble into a perilous debate over their own cultural identities. I found that a Russian-Jewish immigrant and an African-American Jew could have widely divergent perspectives on the same events, despite significant similarities in our affinities, beliefs, and value systems.  

My experience is applicable to workplace relationships. The viewpoint of your employees is as real to them as yours is to you; ignoring or demeaning their perspective can lead to deteriorating relationships. My best friend and I pushed through our disagreement in a few days, due to the history of trust and mutual respect that we had built together. Imagine the damage that could be done between people who barely know each other, or between managers and new team members who are complete strangers.

Thus, security leaders should be careful in these situations. When potentially sensitive cultural or political matters arise, managers should be mindful not to express opinions in a way that implies that those with differing opinions are stupid or lazy. Conversely, managers who find ways to express that they respect differing views, and find them legitimate, are often rewarded with stronger and more respectful relationships with staff. 

We can learn a lot about how to respect differing viewpoints from good security educators. Students will often interject personal feelings into discussions, especially on use-of-force topics, and these feelings may vary from student to student, which presents a challenging situation for the instructor. A good security educator might respond by accepting the feeling of the student, and then providing additional information about an alternate explanation.

Thus, the teacher may respond as follows. "Sure, I can see how it may seem that the officer's actions were inappropriate in this incident. However, if you consider legal precedence for cases like this, the officer's actions, while perhaps not ideal, were nonetheless legal."  ​

Focus on Actions

We must accept that the world is changing, and that our workplace employs a variety of people from a multitude of backgrounds. We will encounter people in the workplace who are different from us—different formative experiences, different cultural mores, different outlooks and perspectives on what is happening around them.

Being different is neither good nor bad, it just is. Managers should not prejudge their employees based on how they look or dress, where they came from, or what they seem to value in life. All that is important is their performance in the workplace and whether they are a productive member of the team.

Don't think of someone as a bad employee or a good employee. Focus on their actions and whether the actions are productive or disruptive to the organization. Keep evaluating these actions fairly, and do not allow yourself to fall back on lazy stereotyping.   

Here is an illustrative example. In my work as a security manager in the public sector, we worked with a community center that had some gang violence issues, such as fights on the basketball court, and similar altercations. As a result, we began looking for an athletic young man to hire as a security officer for the facility, because everyone assumed that's what it would take to control those patrons.

As it happened, our most effective security officer was an older female, who acted like a compassionate parental figure to the teens and young adults in the facility. She earned their respect, and they followed her instructions without question.  ​

Foil Favoritism

Allowing emotions to cloud your judgment is a dangerous trap for any manager. Managers may believe that a team member is underperforming when the underlying issue is not poor performance, but disagreement on certain issues. Conversely, I have watched poorly performing team members receive red carpet treatment because of their friendship with the boss.

This can be especially troubling when the manager shares demographic characteristics with the favored team member—whether that be religion, race, or cultural background—or shows favoritism to an employee who is of the opposite sex. Even if there is no tangible preferential treatment, the perception of special treatment may be damaging to a manager's credibility. The recent spike in media attention to matters of race and gender relations has made this an even more sensitive, and potentially fraught, issue. And any actual discrimination based on a protected class could violate company policies and federal Title IX laws in the United States.

Management decisions must be made with the clarity of rational reasoning and unbiased performance evaluations. This is impossible to achieve when emotions are clouding judgment. Good managers try to combat this in themselves. They assign work based on the strengths of the employees and judge their employees based on the results that they have produced. 

Equal access. Everyone wants to be "cool with their boss," and it is almost a status symbol when someone can say that they get regular time with the boss to pitch their ideas. It takes patience and an open mind to maintain an open-door policy, but the benefits can be tremendous. As a security manager, I have avoided potentially catastrophic employee relations issues because someone walked into my office and said, "hey sir, I just wanted to talk to you about something that kind of bothers me…" 

However, it is only human for people to prefer spending time with people like themselves. Security managers are not immune to these biases, and some employees may get more and longer meetings with the boss than others. This can cause resentment and discord among staff. Thus, its important for managers to remember that, no matter how enjoyable it is to talk to particular employees, everyone on the team is unique and they all bring valuable perspectives to the organization.

Opinion sharing. With generational and cultural diversity comes a greater diversity of opinion. Members of your team may have varying views on prominent issues in the news, be it immigration, gun rights, gay marriage, and performance evaluations of political leaders. In general, the security workplace should not be a venue for discussing, arguing, or advocating these opinions. 

An employee's right to have an opinion about cultural or political topics conflicts with another employee's right not to have to listen to it while at work. Managers who want to avoid confrontations over these sensitive topics should refrain from discussing them at work and strive to maintain a comfortable atmosphere in the workplace. This can occasionally require some sort of intervening action.

I remember coming into our security dispatch center the morning after Barack Obama was elected U.S. president to find two of my dispatchers in a debate over whether the country was now better or worse. One officer, a former union boss from New York, was expressing his view that he could now die peacefully because he had lived to see the first black president of the United States. The other officer was terrified that his world as he had known it was over, and that the country was on the verge of collapse.

Quickly, their disagreement spiraled into a heated argument on the issue of racism—whether it had contributed to the election result or whether it would now spike given the victor. Because the conversation potentially affected not only the relationship of the two officers but also the safety of our operations, I decided to move one officer to another part of the facility for the rest of the shift, to ensure a cool-down period. 

The broader lesson from that experience was the need for clear HR policies that discourage employees from engaging in potentially volatile nonwork-related conversations. Such policies should not focus on topics of conversation as much as on the potential for disruption, reduced performance, or discriminatory behavior.

For example, the policy should not prohibit discussions of a specific issue or election, but should prohibit any behavior that leads to disruption and loss of employee productivity. Thus, two coworkers can have a polite conversation about a political topic and not violate policy, but should their conversation dissolve into rude or inappropriate behavior, management has the policy to support shutting it down.​

Toggle the Fun Switch

Security can be a stressful and emotionally draining profession. Officers in the field may deal with hours of boredom interrupted by moments of potentially life-threatening terror. Those based in the office may stress over risk management, scheduling snafus, and broken contracts. In any workplace, there must be an opportunity for people to blow off stress, recharge, and to get back to work.

This can include interactions when it is okay to be silly and activities that let people have fun. Managers should be able to flip that switch in a way that is recognizable and comfortable for employees. That also means that managers can allow lighter discussions and playful arguments, as long as it is clear they are respectful and that sensitivities are not being trampled. Security managers must also know when to stop such interactions if they become inappropriate or contested.    

For example, allowing employees to banter about their favorite sports teams and last night's game, or the merits of recent movies and performers, can be a natural way to build comradery and make collaboration in the workplace more natural. The manager can participate in the fun, but at the same time be ready to stop the discussion if conversations dissolve into anger or otherwise become unprofessional. For example, a manager should never allow friendly bantering to turn to conversations that include name-calling, racial slurs, sexist expressions, or other language that may be offensive to any team member. Employees may have different standards of offensiveness, so the manager should ensure that the language is appropriate for all. 

Sometimes, employees try to encourage their manager to offer opinions in debates. This can be an attempt to seek validation by the boss. This can be a tricky situation that should be approached cautiously. No matter which side you pick, you may alienate someone. In a friendly debate over favorite sports teams or favorite foods, this is not a big deal. But in a civil, experience-based discussion that involves issues like discrimination, taking a side could have lasting consequences on your relationship with those on the other side. Sometimes, it is wisest to defer, based on the sensitivity of the issue. 

Finally, a small percentage of employees are drawn to conflict and drama and politics in the workplace for different reasons. In these cases, the manager should be careful of being lured into a debate by an employee with an agenda, such as a desire to undermine the supervisor's credibility with the rest of the team.

Consider Gender Issues

Accepting responsibility is a key tenet of leadership. A good manager remains humble and accepts that no one is perfect and all make mistakes. Mistakes that involve office diversity and inclusion can be costly, and the longer they are allowed to fester, the worse the consequences will be.

For example, when I was an ROTC unit commander, I was conducting a uniform inspection on a unit of about a dozen cadets. I stopped in front of the third or fourth cadet in the line, and, as always, I inspected from top to bottom. Although I was standing in front of the cadet, I called out the chin hair that needed to be shaved off. The cadet then punched me in chest and stormed out of formation.

I had not realized the cadet was a female until after I made the comment; I was so focused on avoiding favoritism that I was deliberately not paying attention to the gender of the cadet I was inspecting. My immediate reaction was indignation that she had punched me, and then had left my formation. It took several hours for me to come to the realization that her actions were the result of mine. I had insulted a cadet in front of her peers.

It took the better part of a week for me to apologize and receive forgiveness from her. The damage that I incurred with the rest of her unit lasted much longer. Some of her peers who thought I had done this on purpose started losing respect for me altogether.

The possibility for similar unintentional mistakes exists in the security workplace setting. 

Consider what would happen if a manager who routinely referred to their employees by Mr. and Ms., or sir and ma'am, was assigned an employee who identified as gender neutral, or was undergoing gender reassignment at the time of employment. Would that employee feel discriminated against if they were the only one who was referred to by their name only? How would the team feel if the manager started referring to everyone by their first name, due to the arrival of that one new employee?

The solution to scenarios like these often lies in cutting through any miscommunications and going directly to the source. In my case, I had to accept responsibility for my mistake, and when I approached the cadet I both apologized and explained what had happened. Once she forgave me, she became the person that helped others understand that this was an honest mistake. In the workplace, as part of the onboarding process, the manager should consult the employee on how they would like to be addressed. The employee's validation of the manager's approach will be visible to the other employees in the office, and miscommunication may be avoided.

Catch Up to the Future

Societal norms are being reevaluated and changed so rapidly that some people have not had time to realize that their actions or words in the workplace might not be appropriate. Moreover, the widespread availability of video-capable technology and the speed with which video can be spread have created an environment where management's actions or inactions can be immediately evaluated and judged by their own employees and the media, leading to more serious consequences for those who cannot find a way to work together with their diverse team. 

Diversity, while challenging, is the source of a great team's strength, because it provides multiple unique perspectives, skill sets, and strengths to the organization at large. Those managers who can accept and encourage diversity, and are willing to make the effort to maintain an environment in which all team members can comfortably thrive, will find their units to be stronger and more successful than their competition.

Yan Byalik, CPP, is the security administrator for the City of Newport News, Virginia, and has been working in the security industry in both public and private sectors since 2001.