By Linda Wallace
It took a few painful years for me to stumble upon a remarkable discovery: Not everything bad that happens to me occurs because my skin is brown.
On the contrary, I find that the fact I am female seems to matter considerably in the business world. On two occasions, supervisors offered me jobs I had not applied for (and didn’t want) because they felt I had “the right style and look.”
More than a quarter-century after entering an era when tolerance, diversity and differences were enthusiastically embraced by America as a strategic mission, discrimination lawsuits are siphoning off millions of dollars that rightfully belong to shareholders.
Today’s workers who are denied jobs or promotions point to a wide range of factors: age, foreign accents, gender, sexual orientation and religion. Having a more flavorful variety of Equal Employment Opportunity complaints does not exactly constitute progress.
Efforts to eliminate cultural bias in the workplace have failed, in part, because of the shifting cultural mindset. Over past decades, many White Americans expected that minorities and immigrants would conform to their style of dress, their behavior and their language — and many did. Today, many newcomers opt to remain connected to their old cultures, customs and values. They choose to stand apart rather than to blend in.
So what is a democracy to do?
Well, for starters, each of us needs to accept responsibility for the roles we play. Nobody can change us except us. Since we don’t always agree, we all need to learn how to manage conflict so diversity becomes a corporate asset rather than a liability.
Assumptions, based upon subconscious or conscious, social or cultural beliefs, often cloud our judgments. We then don’t realize how off course we are until we get smacked with a lawsuit.
The biases that we bring to work with us, every day spill over into our decisions, without our ever being aware of them. They keep us from seeing that assumptions are dangerous and often costly.
To eliminate these biases from our workplaces, management and workers have to make critical shifts:
• From intention to outcomes: Develop ways to identify and measure the degree to which corporate policies and practices have disparate impacts on women or ethnic groups. Companies that allow sales teams to meet in strip clubs may unintentionally restrict the progress and advancement of its female associates.
• From colorblindness to managing bias: Identify the cultural, social and political biases that may impair sound decision-making. Provide staff with techniques and tools to manage them. Visit Project Implicit, established by Harvard University, to help identify your hidden biases
• From diversity to inclusiveness: Broaden diversity programs beyond skin color and gender, and focus on inclusiveness. Foster an environment that allows diverse individuals to be their best.
• From powerlessness to powerful: Set high expectations for all people, and create culturally appropriate strategies to help individuals excel. Many organizations focus on identifying characteristics of successful minority, women and youthful workers yet fail to similarly identify characteristics of managers who excel with these groups. It takes two solid halves to make a whole.
• From “me” to “our”: Once we create inclusive organizations, focus less on “my group” and more on “our” common interests.