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Our nation just experienced yet another mass shooting — the worst since Sandy Hook. Immediately, the media turned to terrorism as a possible cause, as the two main shooters were Muslim and one of them declared allegiance to ISIS shortly before the assault. As usual, progressives quickly called for gun control and conservatives called for increased aggression … and defunding Planned Parenthood. A few days later Obama named the attack “terrorism” and outlined his solution: destroy ISIS. Since then, we’ve seen several articles exploring what lead to the shooter couple’s “radicalization.”

No one is meaningfully examining the workplace dynamics that seem to have triggered the killing. Once again, our sole response to an attack seems to be plans for more attacking and invading. Once again, we’ve missed the opportunity for introspection, identifying root causes, owning our contributions to those root causes and finding an effective, enduring, minimally destructive solution.

Like most situations involving human beings, this isn’t a simple problem with one simple solution. However, just before he and his wife killed 14 people at a workplace holiday party, Syed Farouk argued with a co-worker about Islam — at that party. This co-worker, Nicholas Thalasinos, was a born-again Christian, NRA-supporting, “anti-Muslim” Zionist Jew known for his vitriolic rants against Muslims and other progressive causes and groups on social media. Thalasinos was among those killed, and his wife is calling him a martyr.

Let’s be honest: bigotry and workplace bullying were likely a catalyst for the San Bernardino massacre.  Bigotry is still affecting our understanding and framing of the shooting.  If the shooters had been Christian and White, we might be talking about bigotry and workplace bullying instead of ISIS and terrorism.  In fact, the increasing acceptance of bigotry in public discourse and the silent epidemic of workplace violence are likely as threatening to our well being as international terrorism.

I’m not saying the shooters’ actions were justified or that they weren’t responsible for their behavior.  I’m not saying we don’t desperately need gun control, nor a multi-faceted, sustainable strategy for eliminating terrorism.  I’m saying we’re taking the easy way out by not distributing responsibility fairly for what happened.  Mr. Thalasinos wasn’t “an innocent” as he and the other “victims” of the shooting are made out to be.

I’m also saying calling this tragic shooting “terrorism” is troubling because it looks less like Paris or 9-11 and more like Sandy Hook or Charleston.  Arguably, the murder of multiple people is terrorism, period.  If so, then let’s also call Sandy Hook and Aurora terrorism.  And let’s absolutely call the Charleston murders, the arson of Black churches, White supremacists shooting #BlackLivesMatter activists, attacks on Planned Parenthood clinics, the murders of transwomen and Donald Trump’s rants against Mexicans and immigrants what they are – terrorism.  Those definitely qualify as “the use of violence and intimidation in the pursuit of political aims,” perhaps even more so than the San Bernardino shooting.

I don’t know what Farouk and his wife were thinking or feeling.  I don’t know what it was like to be them, living as young Muslims in San Bernardino, listening to people like Thalasinos and Trump spew venom with no consequences.  I don’t know what pain or desperation would drive them to orphan their baby.  Obviously they amassed weapons over time, but to storm Farouk’s workplace – an insignificant municipal building – after an argument seems less like a strategic political move and more like “going postal” after exhausting their ability to cope.

Finally, I’m saying this tragedy might have been avoided with effective leadership and a commitment to an inclusive workplace at the Inland Regional Center.  If indeed Thalasinos’s views and his argument with Farouk were what set this Muslim couple off, I doubt their conflict started that day.  I’ve yet to find an article containing interviews with coworkers or management, but it seems Thalasinos’s and Farouk’s views were known, and Thalasinos appeared more of an instigator.  If so, how was Thalasinos’s behavior tolerated?  If not, what were coworkers and leaders missing that could have avoided this tragedy?

Workplace diversity and Inclusiveness is about co-creating and maintaining an environment where diverse people and views are welcomed, celebrated and leveraged for maximum collective benefit and individual health and happiness.  It’s not about turning a deaf ear to the expression of views or opinions that are disrespectful, offensive or violent.  Impact matters more than intent.  Bigotry should never be tolerated in the workplace in the name of “diversity” or “acceptance” even at a social event.  Intimidation and bullying is workplace violence and should never be tolerated.  Rather than responding with blanket ban policies (e.g., don’t “friend” a coworker on facebook, no facial piercings allowed, don’t call it “Christmas”), we must uplevel our leadership skillset.   We must insist that our organizations invest meaningfully in developing leaders’ communication, interpersonal and leadership skills, and promote only those who demonstrate that competence.  We must get to know our reports, do regular one-on-ones, ensure equitable accountability, behave with integrity and hone our ability to give feedback and have difficult conversations at all levels of our organization.

We should also follow the Huffington Post’s lead regarding Trump – let’s stand up to bullies and call out bigotry and misogyny for what it is.  That’s D&I leadership.  Let’s each do our part to be leaders in creating a world that works better for all of us, and ensure our team or organization isn’t next on the news.


  • Greg Davidson says:

    I tried to comment on your article in the Talent Management Newsletter, “Bigotry, Bullying and San Bernardino” and apparently the comment section isn’t working? My comment pointed to how Diversity and Inclusion is starting to become a political weapon rather than an ideal that we should all be working towards. Your article was moving in the direction of cloaking political activism as diversity and inclusion. Calling political opponents “Racist” makes it all the more difficult to actually address racism. Suggesting that Nicholas Thalasinos was guilty of bullying because there was an argument, and then drawing the conclusion that the christian was to blame for the muslim killing 14 people just clouds the issue and polarizes people. It is okay for christians and muslims to feel strongly about their faith and to disagree. It is not okay to kill people.

    While I agree with you that we need to stand up and call out those who bully others, we shouldn’t decide that someone who disagrees with us is a bully. We need to call out racism, bigotry and misogyny. And, we need conservative and progressive voices to do it effectively. Using racism, bigotry, and misogyny terms for political name calling makes the real problems of racism, bigotry and misogyny more difficult to address and easier to justify and hide behind.

    As both a conservative and active advocate for diversity and inclusion it is fascinating how that can be confusing and frustrating to those who are oriented towards political movements rather than problem-solving. I think we need more problem-solving.

    I’m sure we disagree on politics. I am also sure that in a diversity and inclusion ideal, you and I could do some great problem-solving together.

    Thanks for the article Susana.

    • Susana Rinderle says:

      Hello Greg! Thank you for your tenacity in trying to get your comment posted, and also for your measured and thought-provoking observations. First, I own that I did make an uncharacteristic stretch by using the term “bullying” with limited information at the time. The information I used to base that term was not one argument as you say. The information (some of that is links in the piece) were Thalasinos’ social media posts and reports on the two men’s behaviors prior to that fateful day, as well as at the party. Apparently Thalasinos was quite open about his views — in fact, told by his organization on numerous occasions to tone it down — and Farouk was very quiet and reserved. I don’t have an any evidence that Thalasinos was bullying Farouk in an HR-sort of way, but drawing on my experience with people and workplaces, I suspect that Thalasinos’ was more of an instigator. The manner of expression of his views on social media are completely unacceptable if they were showing up that way in the workplace. Also, radical Christian and radical Zionist views are more tolerated in the US than radical Islamist views, so there is an inequity there in terms of our tolerance of “extremism,” with little basis in fact in terms of who harms who more, including on US soil.

      Second, I didn’t blame Thalasinos for what happened, which I made clear in my piece. I’m adding complexity and broadening responsibility here, as I stated, and I think it’s fair to say Thalsinos was a bigot.

      Third, I very much agree that problem solving should be the focus! However, what do you mean by D&I being used as a “political weapon”? I think in the field and the world at large we’re far from agreement about what D&I is really about, what its goals should be, who is responsible for what, and what the most effective response should be to problems of inequity and exclusion. I think one of the core issues is most people in the traditional power positions say they want D&I (and think they want it) but can’t tolerate the necessary conflict involved, much less a shift from the status quo, which favors their way of being, thinking, working, relating, etc. Indeed it’s interesting to me how conservatives tend to view progressives as “activists” and involved in “politics” when conservatives also have an agenda they advocate for (the definition of an activist). D&I is political by nature because it’s about the material, social and economic reality of people’s lives. It’s just that some of us have more to lose if things stay the same. What looks to you like D&I being used as a weapon might just be folks disagreeing with you, and getting louder about it because we’re really tired of things not changing.

      Thanks for reading, commenting, and inspiring me to thinking, Greg!

  • Greg Davidson says:

    Your response seems to view diversity and inclusion along an axis of oppressed vs. oppressors. black vs white, women vs men, christian vs muslim and etc. You go further to suggest there is an inherent and even an inevitable conflict between those who are currently benefiting from the system and those who are not. The pie is only so big so those who have the bigger piece are going to have to give up some of their pie. You also seem to challenge those of the status quo that the new ideal may not be to their liking.

    I don’t see D&I as a conflict. I see it as a profound respect for individuals. It is that profound respect for individuals that allows for muslims and christians to live and work together without having to sacrifice who they are. D&I is a way to move past conflict rather than engage in it.

    It is not about women vs men. The idea is that both men and women have a lot to offer. And the big idea of D&I is that white and black solutions are better, by far, than just white solutions. Our nation is governed better when there are both progressive and conservative ideas on the table. The pie is bigger when we allow everyone to participate. D&I is the complete opposite of conflict.

    I was listening to an interview of Sheryl Sandberg who described what I am trying to communicate. She said we need both men and women in the workplace. The challenge is creating an environment where we can work together. “If we let the girls run with the boys we’ll all get faster!”

    If we let D&I degenerate into the old idea that one group needs to step aside to allow another group to take charge we lose the very power associated with it. It doesn’t mean we don’t oppose ideas that we disagree with. It is that we hold a profound respect for our opponents even when we disagree.

    If bigotry is defined as holding a certain worldview or opinion as superior to others then there isn’t much difference between the bigotry of Thalsano, Farouk, and old generation D&I advocates. The only difference is the extent to which they are willing to engage in the conflict to impose their view.

    • Susana Rinderle says:

      Hi Greg! Thanks for your follow up. I’ve been doing this work for a long time (perhaps you have, too), and I came up believing the way you do. I actually agree with everything you say! Where I believe you fall short is in two areas (a) lack of knowledge about how our brains work, and how our actual behaviors often contradict our good intentions, even our values, and (b) lack of awareness of how power works in interpersonal, intergroup, and intercultural relationships (and it’s more complicated than the dichotomies you describe). I’ve written quite a bit on both topics. Sandberg’s entire book Lean In is arguably a testimony to how male-dominated workplaces disadvantage women and what we have to do to shift things. Conflict is inevitable when a status quo changes — entire books have been written on this, and I view conflict as healthy and an opportunity, not something to fear. If you truly listen to people you might notice that conflict already exists — I’m just calling it out. Ignoring it, wishing it away or pretending it doesn’t exist doesn’t help.

      If you’re interested in my definition of bigotry it’s in my “Basic D&I definitions” resource and while I agree with you that anyone can be bigoted and no one group corners the market on bigotry, not all bigotries (and unconscious biases) are the same in their impact — in their ability to harm or benefit people in meaningful ways.

      If all we had to do was appreciate differences and what we each have to offer, as you say, we wouldn’t be having this conversation or doing the work we do. That’s an outdated, superficial approach. Most people are good folks, and 95% of the people I work with believe everyone has something to offer and that diversity is a good thing. But intent doesn’t equal impact — there’s more to human behavior than that. I hope good folks like you can make the shift to address the gaps in our approach as a field and ensure that our grandkids aren’t still having this conversation.

      Happy Holidays!

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