Given that the workplace is full of humans, there is then automatically an almost infinite number of ways in which a good intention can be misunderstood, causing reactions that can escalate, and triggering government agencies to be using international media to call for one’s head within hours. One small radio station’s management team is learning this the hard way.
BBC News recently reported that South African pop diva Unathi Nkayi, one of South Africa’s best-known radio personalities, and colleague Cleo Meshoro were suspended from their jobs over a dispute about whether they should work on August 9, National Women’s Day. The date has been observed as a public holiday in South Africa since 1994 and commemorates the 1956 national march of 20,000 women protesting apartheid.
The hubbub started when station management decreed – without consulting the staff – that on August 9, the day’s programming would be all women DJs, giving the male DJs and staff the day off. According the station manager Bondo Ntuli, “We wanted to show that women are marginalised in this industry. We are the only station in South Africa that could put on a 24-hour line-up of women DJs.” Not talking to staff before the announcement: mistake number one. The sentiment is admirable…but there was another perspective not considered: that of the women who had wanted to go to Pretoria for the celebrations.
Nkayi and Meshoro objected to the scheduling arrangement, asking why the women had to work on the national holiday while the men did not. Fair question, although Ms. Nkayi going on the record with her objection by way of an e-mail to the station staff was probably an unnecessary escalation. Nevertheless, at this point it was still an internal issue that easily could have been addressed by management.
However, this is where it all starts to go sideways. Ntuli responded to Nkayi’s complaint by saying that she could have taken the day off, had she requested it in time (and filled out her TPS reports, no doubt); but “she never spoke to [us] about being an activist and wanting to attend the march.” Perhaps in South Africa, attending certain events means you are automatically an activist, and you also must tell your boss exactly why you want a day off and how you plan to spend your time. Or perhaps just at this radio station. Either way, both women were suspended, summoned to a disciplinary hearing, and charged with insubordination.
Enter the press: In a statement to the media, Nkayi’s manager said that the DJ was “just fighting to be respected as a human being…This is not disrespecting senior management. It’s a human rights issue.”
Oh boy. And on that note, enter a spokesperson for the ruling party.
“It is highly unacceptable that employees could be suspended for merely articulating a protest or disagreement,” added Zizi Kodwa, spokesman for the African Naitional Congress Youth League (ANCYL), who expressed the group’s “shock and extreme disappointment” at the suspensions. “We condemn this unfortunate act by the [radio station’s] management and hope that the suspension will be lifted immediately.”
Kodwa specifically asked that the radio station lift the suspension and offer the women an apology. No word yet as to whether either action is forthcoming.
What we have learned:
1. Test new ideas with a focus group of staff, especially regarding pay or schedule changes, if widespread and bottom-up buy-in is important.
2. If a management decision is not up for discussion, communicate your reasoning as clearly, as completely, and as far in advance as possible.
3. Understand that a pop diva will get to the press first.
4. If a government agency gets involved because it has become a human rights issue, you have overlooked one of the above lessons.