Workplace diversity is a pressing topic among HR pros. It's heavily scrutinized in blogs, at conferences and during training sessions. That attention often focuses on how diversity affects the company — but what about how minorities' experiences affect people personally and professionally?
Google employee Erica Baker addressed that question recently on Medium with a first-person account of her experiences as a minority in the tech industry. Here, Dr. Kecia Thomas, a professor of industrial-organizational psychology at the University of Georgia, explains how individual workers' experiences can reverberate throughout an organization:
How do the experiences of minority workers affect the entire company?
The concerns of under-represented workers often represent the concerns of other workers, as well. The issues that minority workers might experience are not all that different from the experiences of people who were the first generation to go to college in their families, or people who might come from a lower economic class. Attending to diversity actually helps to improve the workforce overall.
Some of the challenges for ethnic minority workers, for example, are that they often find themselves as one-of-a-kind in their workplace. I’m talking about high-level professionals, people with graduate degrees and above. There are implicit biases that might hinder their access to informal networks, to mentoring or to professional development opportunities that could subsequently impair their performance and career development. I think there are also experiences that newcomers face in regard to feeling invisible and voiceless.
How do these biases affect people in the majority?
It’s not a stretch to say that the lack of exposure for many white colleagues can also be a source of anxiety that can inhibit their opportunity for authentic interactions with a new colleague who is different, ethnically or culturally.
Any time we have those barriers to communication or to establishing authentic relationships, it’s a potential barrier to our performance and our ability to work together productively.
Whose role is it to consider these issues within a company — and to take steps to address them?
When it comes to any type of organizational change, it always begins at the top. Leaders have to understand demographic shifts in their labor force, how those shifts might be reflected — and the needs and priorities of their workers. When leaders are committed to a diverse and inclusive workplace, HR is empowered to put in place the strategies that are equally effective across a diversity of workers.
There’s also a culture of the organization that has to be addressed to make sure that people are held accountable if they violate non-discrimination and anti-harassment policies. Too often, companies don’t have clear policies, or they're not communicated effectively. And even if they’re communicated effectively, they’re not always followed.
We are at a critical point as a nation in regard to how we address diversity. We are seeing a lot of blatant forms of discrimination and violence occur, but we’re also seeing a younger generation that is so multicultural and inclusive. We’re seeing an increasing number of states embrace same-sex marriage. So there’s kind of a tidal wave of issues going on that reflect our differences. We have an opportunity to do this well and see this as a way to promote innovation, creativity and greater collaboration.
A lot of the research I’ve done with Vicky Plaut [professor of law and social science at the University of California, Berkeley] suggests that we need to embrace multiculturalism and that the era of colorblindness is over. In fact, colorblindness is a signal to members of ethnic and racial minority groups that they are now vulnerable to discrimination.
Photo: Can Stock
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Dear ReWorker: Handling Sexual Harassment in the Workplace?
Dear ReWorker, We recently had a sexual harassment complaint about an employee. Out of curiosity, I Googled this person and found several websites that list his name and include details about his inappropriate sexual activities and relationships. Aside from the internal complaint of sexual harassment in the workplace, the internet posts bother me very much. The situation certainly does not make the company look good and it tells me a lot about the employee's moral and ethical standards. Can I fire him for the complaint as well as what I found out on the Internet? Sincerely, Tempted to Terminate ___________________________________________________________________________________ Dear Tempted to Terminate, You are making this more difficult than it needs to be. If his offense at work was serious enough for termination, you fire him, regardless of his internet persona. It doesn't matter what he does outside of work or what he posts online—he misbehaved at work and should be punished. Now, this does become more complicated if his offense isn't necessarily fireable. Let's say someone complained that he made one dirty joke. That wouldn't (generally) be enough for a termination. If that's the case, here are a few other questions to consider. Is His Online Behavior Just Icky, or Is It Illegal? This is important because in some states or cities, you can't terminate someone for doing something controversial outside of work if it's legal. So, if you find his behavior objectionable but happen to live in one of these jurisdictions, you can't terminate him for that behavior. If you live outside these areas, employees don't have the right to do icky things and brag about them on the internet, even if it's outside of the workplace. There's no free speech in the workplace, and as long as his questionable behavior didn't include him starting a union, you can terminate him for outside activities. Are You Discriminating Based on Gender or Sexual Orientation? If a woman were saying the same things online as the employee in question, would you be okay with it? If your answer is yes, then you're discriminating illegally. If he were a different sexual orientation, would you be okay with it? If so, then you need to be extra cautious. The courts have reached mixed verdicts on whether you can legally discriminate against someone based on sexual orientation, but the reality is, even if your bias falls within the law, you shouldn't act on it. You should be judging people based on their work. Does the Behavior Reflect Badly on the Company? Assuming that his behavior at work wasn't serious enough for a termination, and assuming that it's not illegal to terminate him, should you still do it? Generally, managers should stay out of their employees' online lives. You wouldn't invite yourself over to dinner at their house, so why should you invite yourself onto their Facebook pages? With that said, you should take action if the employee's behavior reflects badly on the company. If there's nothing online linking him to your company, you should probably let it go. If it's easy to link him to your company, however, that's another story. Regardless of your decision you need to do two things: consult with your employment attorney and enforce the same standard across the board, regardless of age, gender, position or tenure. Your ReWorker, Suzanne Lucas, Evil HR Lady Photo: Creative Commons
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Why Starbucks' Unconscious Bias Training Probably Won't Change Much
Starbucks made a splash recently by closing 8,000 stores to provide unconscious bias training for over 100,000 employees. The company decided on this widespread training after an employee stopped two black men from using their onsite restroom in a Philadelphia store. As a former Chief Learning Officer at multiple organizations, I don't think this training will change much. And, as a consultant, I can also guess what this training may have cost Starbucks. So why pay for something that likely won't stop this situation from happening in the future? The short answer is because it is easier to "train" people for a half day than to do the challenging work of creating an infrastructure of leadership and a culture of diversity and acceptance. The first of Starbucks' three stated values is "Creating a culture of warmth and belonging, where everyone is welcome." Sounds easy. After all, we all want to be welcoming to everyone, right? In practice, however, it's not that simple. As humans, we bring complexity, variability, and, sometimes, bias to the table whether we realize it or not, and four hours of training alone won't change that. To drive real change, organizations need leaders who understand their role in shaping behaviors, and it's up to these leaders to teach employees how to best represent the image of the organization in their work. Here are four practical ways leaders can shape culture and behavior on their teams: Don't Hide Behind the Scenes If you're a leader, your office is a great place to hole up and get work done, but that's not where the real leadership happens. The real work of an organization takes place where employees work—in front of customers, with the products. Being a leader means regularly listening, observing and, when appropriate, immediately intervening to acknowledge behavior that is exceptional, or reprimand behavior that must change. Make it part of your routine to be present and active, side-by-side with employees. Be Aware of the Situation Your presence alone isn't enough. Leaders must view the workplace and their employees through a critical lens—the values of the organization. That means being open to noticing, as in Starbucks' case, when that culture of belonging and warmth is violated. Using a values filter may not be second nature, particularly because this type of leadership is a time-consuming and all-encompassing work. It's critical for leaders to see beyond their point of view, embrace the organization's values and coach them, thereby shaping behaviors that represent the values. Match Worker Demographics to Customer Demographics Organizations are increasingly making an effort to hire a more diverse workforce, and there's a valid business reason for that—employees who share the culture and background of the customer base will be better able to meet the customer needs because they're more likely to have similar needs. An employee demographic that represents the customer demographic can also help ensure that products fit the culture of the local presence. Find Teachable Moments Leaders sometimes view coaching and feedback as something that's provided to employees only when they're doing something wrong. As a result, they are uncomfortable providing feedback regularly because they think it sends the wrong message to workers. But by adopting a teaching mentality, leaders can view feedback as a good thing—a learning or developmental opportunity rather than a corrective one. A mindset of continuous learning goes a long way for opening up a meaningful dialogue. Leaders who understand that shaping their culture is an ongoing process, and approach it from a long-term learning and engagement lens can generate excitement about their organization's value. And that excitement typically lasts a whole lot longer and is much more effective than a four hour training session. Photo: Unsplash
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Is Unconscious Bias Sneaking Into Your Workplace?
"Okay you guys; it's time to get down to work," Jordan says to her team. "Man, this is really going to be a challenge," Luke replies, exasperated. "Oh brother, here we go, another late night at the office," Sarah sighs loudly. This conversation seems like a typical team exchange about a big project, right? Well, it is—and it drives me crazy. Why? Because of the language used: "you guys," "man," "oh brother." This is a mixed gender team, yet the pronouns and expressions are entirely male. It's true that male pronouns are traditionally used to represent all members of a group regardless of gender. However, defaulting to what's "traditional" is very tricky. One could argue that traditionally, women didn't really have a voice in business anyway, or that traditionally, women were not leaders. The problem with "traditions" is they can be safe-havens for unconscious bias. The Problem with Unconscious Bias When language promotes bias, the impact is bigger than you might expect: it expresses an inherent belief that male teams are better. Or worse, that women don't even belong on a team at all. The language may appear neutral or non-sexist, in that it applies to everyone, but it discriminates against women because it reflects the values of the men who created or developed the workplace. Another poignant example is the expression, "Are you man enough for the job?" Even if sayings like this are meant to be harmless, they contribute to many of the challenges women face in the workplace. For example, consider this: How often do you assume the CEO of a company is male? It's not only men and women that are guilty of this, the Oxford Dictionary is also an offender. Anthropologist and Ph.D. student Michael Oman-Reagan identified the following biased definitions (and more) in the Oxford Dictionary: However, gender-biased language isn't all we're guilty of. I hear age-biased language about millennials all the time. For example, "I just hired a new kid." The hire is most likely a "recent graduate" or "young person" which are better terms to use than kid. I even saw generational bias in a recent article: "...many kids admitted into top schools are emotional wrecks." If this is the language we use to describe young people, then our words subconsciously allow us to treat them like children, which partly explains why Gen Y feels like no one takes them seriously. Is this really how we want to treat the second biggest generation, who happens to have the most educated people in its cohort? When to Watch Your Words That brings me to an important question: Are leaders giving enough thought to the language they use daily? I'm not talking about overtly offensive language or ethnic slurs. I'm talking about the subtle language we say on autopilot, the type of language that comes from—and worse, reinforces—unconscious, biased behavior. My challenge for all of you is to eliminate these biased words from your vocabulary and try these alternatives instead: "You guys": Instead use "everyone," "all of you," "team" "The kid": Instead use "the young person," "young lady," "young man" "Oh man" or "Oh brother": Instead use "wow," "ugh," "yikes "Attendees and their wives are invited": Instead use, "Attendees and their guests..." "Congressman": Instead use "Member of Congress," "legislator," "representative" "Mankind": Instead use "humankind," "humans," "people" "Manpower": Instead use "personnel," "staff" "Salesman": Instead use "salesperson" Seems simple enough, doesn't it? After you start with the eight words above, you'll begin to notice how much this language is used on a daily basis. All it takes is practice and awareness to help lower the burden of bias on the women and young people around you. Remember: language creates action and action becomes accepted behavior which informs organizational culture. Your language, and your actions, matter. Photo: Shutterstock