Monday, December 28, 2009

Separating work and home

Dear Diversity Diva: I work at a company where managers are expected to host little holiday parties at their home for the people they manage. Because of the neighborhood I live in, I just don’t feel comfortable having folks from work over. How do I get out of this and keep my boss from holding it against me? — Humble About My Home

Dear Humble: This time of the year can be a stressful time, not just because of family expectations but because of the expectations at work with the pseudo-family dynamic some workplaces can engender.

At work, where people all show up at the same place, it’s easy to forget that people come from different backgrounds and transport themselves from different neighborhoods. While people should never be ashamed of where they are from or where they live now, it’s not an unreasonable concern to wonder how your co-workers and supervisors will judge you outside of the workplace knowing how judgmental people can be inside the workplace.

To stay in your boss’s good graces, explain to him or her that personal family issues (keeping it vague) make it inconvenient to host work parties at home but that you would be more than happy to help arrange for an off-site lunch or happy hour or some other entertainment function.

Emphasize your desire to reward and bond with your team and ask your boss to help you brainstorm some creative ways to do that in a way that won’t negatively impact your family.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Let heritage be self-defined

Dear Diversity Diva: At lunch, several of us were talking about the Tiger Woods affair and we kind of got into a debate about the right way to refer to someone who is more than one race. What is the right way? — Mixed Up About Mixed Races

Dear Mixed Up: It’s understandable why you would be confused. Most of us are blends of ethnic heritages. Some are just more obvious blends than others.

I had this very conversation with a co-worker who once asked why most famous people who have a black parent and a white parent identify themselves as black rather than biracial. I pointed out that people tend to self-identify by what the world repeatedly identifies them as. For example, can you imagine if actress Halle Berry or recording artist Alicia Keys or President Barack Obama identified themselves as white?

Tiger Woods tried to get around this when he first gained notoriety by referring to himself as Cablinasian. That not only made him the butt of jokes, ridicule and even some hostility, but it didn’t keep every media outlet and most people from generally referring to Woods as black.

In a nutshell, the correct answer is that a person of diverse heritage is to be called by whatever he or she chooses to be called — whether it’s mixed, biracial or just picking one race, even if you suspect from physical observation that person has a parent who is of a different race.

The reason you allow people to choose their own self-identification is because individuals have reasons they refer to themselves the way they do. For example, if an adult was raised by just one parent, the adult may identify with just the race of the person who raised him or her. On the other hand, someone who was happily raised by parents from two (or more) racial backgrounds may prefer the term “biracial” because it honors the heritages of both backgrounds.

In the workplace, however, unless someone chooses to tell you all this, it’s a highly personal matter that co-workers don’t need to know in respecting and honoring that person’s preferences. Though if your co-worker invents a cumbersome name such as Cablinasian, you may be allowed to ask that person for his or her second choice.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Add war to the list of taboo topics at work

Dear Diversity Diva: I’m in the military reserves, something everybody at my job knows because of the changes to my work schedule from time to time. One of my supervisors makes anti-war comments all the time that really bother me. How should I handle this? Signed, Worked-Up Weekend Soldier

Dear Worked-Up: Sex, money and religion have always been topics best not to discuss in inappropriate places. Add the U.S. involvement in military action to that list.

Increasingly, everyone knows a loved one or an acquaintance going overseas to serve. People also have strong opinions about issues involving safety and, yes, money. And war and military action, for some, is nothing more than a topic reduced to budgetary considerations of taxpayer money.

If the supervisor has done something that makes you feel that he or she is discriminating against you on the basis of your military service — for example, doesn’t allow your seniority to accrue when you are away for training or makes you use your earned vacation for your time away for reservist duty — then you should immediately notify your human resources department. That would be a violation of federal law.

If that’s not the case, I would have a friendly talk with the supervisor and make clear that you would appreciate keeping this topic off the discussion track.

As is the case with most strong, casually expressed opinions, the supervisor may not be aware of the impact. But a supervisor should be smart enough to hear you very clearly.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Share health issues

People with health problems sometimes struggle with how much to share with their employer.

For example, an older woman who works on her feet all day and gets swollen, painful ankles may be afraid to ask her boss for a chair to sit on. And because she can’t afford to take time off, she may not get the doctor’s excuse that might require reasonable accommodation.

It’s a tricky issue of diversity in that she stands out from her younger co-workers who don’t have this problem. But an employee can’t afford to be more concerned about an employer’s reaction than his or her own health or potential disability.

Once a doctor has given a recommendation, then sitting down with the boss to come up with a job adjustment may be in order.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Extra work bugs employee

Dear Diversity Diva: I work in a department where a lot of people are taking time off from work because of kids sick with the flu. It’s just assumed that I’m going to take up the slack because my husband and I don’t have kids.

Not to be mean, but is there anything I can do? — Bugged by the Flu Bug

Dear Bugged: In a word, no.

You put the emphasis on the fact that your co-workers are missing work because their kids have the flu. But does it really make a difference if it’s because of their kids or their spouses or they themselves are home sick?

Ultimately, your workload will change from time to time because of things beyond the control of your co-workers. Just like circumstances in your life, from vacations to your own illnesses, will add to the workload of your co-workers.

If your work is involving overtime or longer hours, you can say no sometimes. And if it truly is quantifiably excessive, file it away as something to support your next raise or promotion.

Just remember they call it a flu season for a reason. So this too shall pass. In the meantime, remember that taking care of sick children isn’t exactly a trip to Disneyland, especially this year.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Is calling someone the wrong name a big deal?

Dear Diversity Diva: The other day I accidentally called a woman in another department by the wrong name and she accused me of thinking that “we all look alike,” since the person I confused her with was of the same race and I’m white. I think that was totally unfair. Everyone mixes people up on occasion, so what’s the big deal? — Tweaking My Twenty-Twenty

Dear Tweaking: Mistakes do happen, and you’re right that in a professional environment people should carefully check how they express frustration.

Most likely your co-worker’s frustration stems from having one of the many again confusing her with one of the few, because I have no doubt this isn’t the first time this has happened to her or to someone she knows. She probably thought that if you can’t keep so few people straight who only share race in common, it’s because you’re either deliberately ignorant or benignly careless.

So if she is already pointedly dealing with being one of a small number, what seems like an innocent mistake to you is a grating misstep to her — and one that minorities generally don’t feel like they have the luxury to make.

Quick rule of thumb: If a person of any race is significant enough to be called by a name at work, make sure it’s the name of the person you’re talking to.

Monday, May 25, 2009

When is it a case of unclear meaning?

Dear Diversity Diva: At a meeting, I was trying to make a point about the need for a variety of perspectives when a co-worker jumped down my throat, mistakenly thinking that I was talking about too many “white males” being on the project. The assumption ticked me off. Is that all anyone thinks you mean just because you’re a member of a minority group? — Making Sense of Assumptions

Dear Making Sense: There would have been nothing wrong if in championing different perspectives, you were including racial background. But if that’s not where you were going, it can be annoying to have to address a point you didn’t make.

Your co-worker would have been better served asking what you meant. And you should have asked him why he was reframing what you said into a completely different point.

Usually discussions like that are best held one on one, but in this case clearing it up professionally in front of the original audience would be a good tactic to nip any misconceptions. And it would set the tone for how you expect important diversity issues to be handled in your presence — which is that you don’t want the concerns you bring up to be obscured by presumptions of what people think you mean.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Why does our company celebrate Cinco de Mayo?

Dear Diversity Diva: Not to be funny, but I’m trying to figure out why people in America celebrate Cinco de Mayo. Is it even a holiday that has anything to do with our country? The company I work for has been having Cinco de Mayo activities for a few years. — Figuring Out Festivities

Dear Figuring Out: I think there’s a larger point you’re getting at with your question — which is, why is your company choosing to focus on some ethnic and diversity events and not others? (By the way, Cinco de Mayo celebrates a victory by the Mexican army over the French army in the Battle of Puebla on May 5, 1862.)

Corporate America frequently passes homage to all kinds of celebrations, holidays and historical events so as not to be just paying lip service to inclusion. It may look like window dressing or just fun and games, but to those who like a workplace that isn’t completely homogenous, it matters.

Although every ethnic, religious or other diverse group isn’t going to get its own event at work, your company at least wants to look like it recognizes the major ones, and in the case of Cinco de Mayo, it’s partially a nod to a segment of the largest ethnic group in our society.

However, companies would serve their whole work force better if they explained the significance of the celebrations. Even St. Patrick’s Day has a historical context besides just an opportunity to wear green, throw a parade and party.

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

What if I don't like some of my company's diversity efforts?

Dear Diversity Diva: Enough is enough. I work for a big company that likes to brag about its diversity efforts in an annual report. In flipping through it, I noticed that the company gave money to a group that supported the legalization of gay marriage, something completely against my religious beliefs. How is that fair? — Seeking Some Diverse Diversity

Dear Seeking: Your question strikes at the heart of what workplace diversity represents.

For some, it’s about preventing discrimination. For others, it’s about promoting a wide range of thought that comes from a wide range of backgrounds that makes for better business. What you are talking about is a whole lot trickier — diversity as a means to promote an agenda. And inherent in certain agendas is equally fierce opposition.

You didn’t mention it, but maybe your company was covering its bases by supporting gay marriage organizations because it had supported other groups that were at the other extreme of the issue. If so, would you still be upset? For example, if your company donated $500 to the Republicans and $500 to Democrats, would you think that was OK because its equitable or would you be upset that anything was given to the party you can’t stand?

While you always have the right to take offense at something that your company does, if it’s not illegal, it just remains a observation of how your organization’s values compares to your own. Of course, you can react in other ways if you are a shareholder in the company.

If the situation continues to bother you, I would suggest going to the person in charge of diversity at your organization and having this conversation.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Should people be approached directly about an issue involving race or ethnicity?

Dear Diversity Diva: Recently a fellow manager and I had a fierce debate. Some documents came into our office that were in Arabic and needed to be translated. The other manager said we should just go directly to the two employees with “Muslim names” and ask them if they would like the translation assignment. I said we should send out an e-mail to see if there were any volunteers to translate. What do you think? — Mulling over Muslim Matters

Dear Mulling: With rare exception, one shouldn’t assume that people ever want to be approached about their race or ethnicity in a work situation if they are not the ones bringing it up. Just because someone has a name of Arab descent, for example, doesn’t mean that they are Muslim or speak Arabic.

More significantly, even if they do speak or read Arabic, it does not necessarily mean that they would feel comfortable sharing that information with an employer. While some may look at speaking a language as a unique asset , an individual with that background may have experienced discomfort — or outright discrimination — because of ethnic background and want to downplay attention.

Your suggestion of sending out a department-wide e-mail would be my preference because it allows people to self-select on what they choose to share with their employers. Also, by allowing people to volunteer, you may give an opportunity to an employee who knows Arabic fluently and has been aching for a chance to use that skill at work.

Last but certainly not least, if you approach the Muslim or Arab employee and that person feels uncomfortable about the request, you can bet a box of staples that if that employee ever files a discrimination complaint on the basis of race, national origin or religion against your employer, that totally innocent request for help will be characterized in a far more sinister light.

Just send out the e-mail. At least one of the employees of Arab descent probably will volunteer, and it also would give you the opportunity to ask if that person would mind being asked again if the situation arises in the future.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Is my boss picking on me for racial reasons?

Dear Diversity Diva: This may not seem like a diversity question, but I just don’t know. My boss is another race than I am, and she’s always sneaking up behind me, looking over my shoulder, to see what’s on my computer screen. In my gut, I think that this boss is picking on me for racial reasons even though I don’t have any problems with the other supervisors and haven’t really had any other problems at work. So am I just being paranoid? — Snippy About Snooping Bosses

Dear Snippy: You’re right to wonder if your issue is a diversity issue. Diversity, generally speaking, is about different perceptions and treatments and the role of differences among groups in the workplace.

Your case doesn’t seem to really be about diversity because you gave no indication about whether this was happening to anyone else.

It sounds like you’re asking a discrimination question disguised as a diversity issue. And this would be something you need to talk over with another supervisor or a human resources person.

Your gut feeling that your boss is “picking” on you because of your race might be entirely accurate and something that your friends and close colleagues might agree with you on when you talk about it on the sly. But it’s just as likely that your boss doesn’t care for you for any number of other reasons and it has nothing to do with race. But constant speculation isn’t going to make your days any easier, especially if this is the only real problem you have at work.

Either way, bosses have the right to see what their employees are up to when they are supposed to be working.

In a truly diverse world, some people who are different than you aren’t going to like you sometimes, and more times than not, there’s not a whole lot you can do about it.

In this case, since you suspect that your boss is creeping up behind you because she has some issue with you, regardless of what the issue is, your best bet is to make sure she only sees work when she looks at your computer screen.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

When majority member sits on minority panel

Dear Diversity Diva: I’m a white guy who sits on the diversity committee where I work. Maybe I’m just naive, but my company seems pretty diverse to me, so how do we know when we’ve achieved diversity? — Making Progress

Dear Making Progress: That’s a great question. And depending on whom you ask, you’ll get several different answers.
Ultimately, I think the answer anyone gives will be based on the view from their seat. For example, if you’re a member of a racial minority, you’re going to be painfully aware of how few members of minority racial groups, particularly your own, work with you. On the other hand, if you’re in the majority racial group for your workplace, then you may tend to view the minority employees that you do have as the sign of great strides toward diversity.
Additionally, diversity is about leadership. So, if all your leaders are monopolized by one group, even if the working core is “diverse,” that still may not be much of an achievement.
However, diversity isn’t just about numbers. If it were, then it would be an easy number to achieve — you would get a demographic breakdown of the community you live in and just make sure you had the proportionate number in your organization.
No, diversity also is about treatment of the different groups within an organization. That’s one of the reasons most diversity initiatives in recent years have been renamed “diversity and inclusion.”
While some write that off as just words and another stab at political correctness, words do mean something. Inclusion means that a company or organization aims to make sure the workplace doesn’t leave anyone out.
Therefore, I don’t think that diversity is ever something that an organization achieves. Rather, it’s a mandate to keep fairness and equity as an objective that is a continual process of progress and not just a single, final achievement.

Saturday, January 31, 2009

Obama Presidency Means Workplace Diversity is Accomplished! NOT!

If you click on the link below you will see the column that I wrote to accompany a story on what President Obama means to the issue of diversity in the workplace.

I was unable to copy and paste the article as I usually do for this blog, but I thought I would use this opportunity to add to the millions of people who have applauded the win and inauguration of President Barack Obama.

While I am beyond thrilled as a black woman that President Obama is our leader, what I've been excited about (and occassionally dismayed by) is the rich, hearty dialogue that has taken place in this country about diversity, particularly race.

However, what has often gotten lost in the celebration and glorification of this country's election of an African-American president is that he is one man and one man with a tough job. He made history but he still has a job to do as this country faces challenges that many have not seen in their lifetime.

He's not the black President, he's the American President and his successes and missteps won't be an endorsement or an indictment of his race. Like most, (with the exception of Rush Limbaugh who openly champions the failure of our President), I'm just praying for President Obama to have the wind at his back for his every initiative that uplifts our country and takes it forward. Like Beyonce says in that commercial, I'm ready for an upgrade!

Friday, January 9, 2009

Show a little courtesy on the elevator

Dear Diversity Diva: This lady on the elevator where I work chewed me a new one because I turned off the elevator sound when I stepped in. She wasn’t blind and neither was anyone else on the elevator, so what was the big deal?

Signed, Failing To See What the Problem Is

Dear Failing to See: The obvious question is, how do you know she wasn’t seeing impaired or that no one else on the elevator was? Unfortunately, a lot of people are very good at relying on stereotype rather than facts to figure out what’s going on around them. For example, not every blind person or visually impaired person wears Ray Charles sunglasses, walks with a cane or has a seeing eye dog as his or her faithful companion.
In this case, however, it wasn’t a matter of you having to figure anything out. A simple asking out loud before you turned off the sound was all you needed to do. While it may have been an annoying ding to you, it may have been a visually impaired person’s best aid to figuring out what floor to get off on. After all, that’s why the device was put on the elevator in the first place.
However, inherent in your question of asking why someone who isn’t blind might have taken offense is your lack of understanding that not all people are driven by what immediately and personally impacts them. For all you know, this person may have had a blind relative or friend or neighbor, and thus has a heightened sense of concern about that issue.
Or maybe she has no personal motivation and was just irritated by what she thought was an insensitive act on your part just to avoid half a minute’s irritation by an elevator sound.
Sometimes respecting diversity and difference isn’t about you needing to know every little thing about every group, it’s just about exercising some basic thoughtfulness and understanding. In this case, asking a simple question or just sucking it up until you get to your floor.

Who's Calling Names?

Dear Diversity Diva: Some guys I work with call each other by a name that would get me and any other white person fired if we used it. Why is it okay when they call each other that?

Signed, Calling It As I See It

Dear Calling It: This is a complicated social topic that many have strong and divided opinions on, especially in the wake of the Don Imus controversy.
But for the workplace, however, it’s a very simple issue — nobody, regardless of their race, needs to be using certain inflammatory terms to address others or talk about others.
There is probably no employee handbook in America that’s silent on the issue and for those few that are, social mores and general employment law step in to prohibit that kind of interaction.
Your supervisors and other co-workers may be ignoring the issue because the participants are the same race and the racially derogatory term is one that is typically used against that very same group, but that’s wrong.
This kind of behavior starts the slippery slope of creating a hostile work environment, where those very guys may be inviting someone to infer that flinging around that word is all right with them no matter who uses it.
As a solution, you might casually mention to one of the guys in the group or to a mutual co-worker that’s friendly with them that their “term of endearment” is grating on the ear and that they need to stop it.
If that doesn’t work, mention it to your immediate supervisor. But if you go that route, you might want to make sure it’s because you’re truly offended by the language or that you’re concerned that others are or will be. Otherwise, you risk creating the impression that you’re ticked that you don’t get to use the same offensive and racially inflammatory language that your minority co-workers use.
On the other hand, if the heart of your question is why it is that minority group members can address each other in ways that people not in the group can’t, I think the overly simplistic answer is because membership has it privileges. As an American, for example, you can refer to yourself in ways that would be fighting words if someone from another country used it.
That may not be fair or even logical, but it’s a social controversy that will not go away soon. At work, however, it really should be a nonissue.

Help! My employee calls me biased

Dear Diversity Diva: You always write about employees with racist or sexist bosses, but what about us bosses who have an employee who always accuses them of discrimination? In particular, I have a minority female who always accuses me (a white guy) of bias whenever she gets upset with me.

Signed, Trying to Prove a Negative

Dear Trying: As with most situations like this, the devil is in the details.
The most obvious question to ask is, are you biased against the employee? And if so, is it because of her gender or race? It’s an obvious question yet one that most people fail to ask themselves because the knee-jerk reaction to that accusation is to deny it. We like to think of ourselves as fair people and honestly don’t see our internal motivations as being motivated by anything other than pure objectives.
Now I’m not saying that every accusation of bias requires deep, soul-searching analysis, just that the question needs to be asked. And it almost definitely requires asking you the question if you’ve heard this from more than one employee or person. Also, it may be that the employee accurately picks up on the fact that you don’t like her, but she’s mistaken about the reason.
Ultimately, you have to look at how you treat the employee. If you know that you are treating the employee fairly then you can’t allow yourself to be hamstrung every time you do something that she doesn’t like.
As uncomfortable as it will be, you should probably do what you should have done the first or second time she accused you of treating her differently because of her race or gender — report this to the human resources department.
It may seem that I am advising you to go tell on yourself, and for something that you don’t even believe is true. But you can’t take the chance that her perceptions do become fact. In other words, if she calls you racist or sexist long enough — especially if she’s repeating this to co-workers — it may snowball into a widespread reputation that you may find impossible to refute if she or some other employee files a formal complaint.
Your employee may honestly believe you harbor a bias against her. Or she may be failing to do her own internal work to ask herself if she’s confusing bias with supervision. Either way, at this point, you should let someone official help you figure it out.