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.