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.