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.

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