Overcoming Isms in Your Workplace

By Steve Robbins

Oct. 3, 2008

I immigrated to this country at age 5 from Vietnam in 1970 at the height of the Vietnam War. From the moment I first stepped foot in America, I understood racism. Living in poverty in Los Angeles, I was subject to an endless string of schoolyard and alleyway fights, injustices and sorrows. Those struggles, along with family tragedies, left me with an enormous chip on my shoulder, which I managed to overcome.

    My personal history informs what I do as I engage organizations in dialogues about diversity. What I have seen—and what I’ve lived—tells me that many people in our culture face hardships in their lives and workplaces not because they lack talents and skills, but because others don’t make the effort to really see them or allow them to succeed. When others define you by your slanted eyes, it limits your potential. But it limits their potential too, and that’s the message I bring to businesses. In organizations overrun by racism, sexism and other “isms,” everyone loses.

    Now, let’s get practical. We all have racial and other stereotypes. They are burned in our brains permanently, like the information on a CD. We pick up these stereotypes, starting at a very young age, from our parents, teachers, friends, classmates, the news media, the entertainment industry and from personal experiences. It’s human nature and unavoidable to make unfair generalizations about others based on their race.

    You’ll never really be able to erase the “bad” information in your head. Think of that CD again—it’s already recorded there. But you can train yourself to be more mindful of how that bad information affects your daily actions, reactions and decision making. You can learn how to manage your biases. You can become more aware of your gut reactions to people who are different from you, and you can question those reactions knowing they likely are based on stereotypes and biased images.

    A major focus of diversity training is helping people understand and manage their biases—because we know we can’t completely erase them.

Three Ways Stereotypes Can Affect Your Business
Making assumptions about people based on their race can have a significant effect on workplace culture and productivity. Here are some reasons:

  • It cuts off opportunities for growth and competition. If you, or your employees, brand someone as slow, naive, nonintellectual, good at numbers but bad with people, great at following directions but not leader material, or some other limiting stereotype based on that person’s race, gender, religion, size or age, you won’t be able to take advantage of those different and potentially valuable approaches to a problem or task. Tapping diverse viewpoints and styles drives innovative problem solving and learning.

  • It creates low morale and low retention. A workplace infected with prevalent racist, sexist, ageist, classist, homophobic and other biased attitudes and policies is a place where nobody wants to work. Studies show people of color are three times more likely than their white counterparts to quit a job based on perceived unfair practices at work based on their race. Gay and lesbian professionals and managers cite workplace unfairness as the only reason they leave their employers almost twice as often as heterosexual white males. Having an intolerant culture makes the workplace a roller coaster of instability.

  • It leads to poor productivity. When racism, sexism and other isms are rampant in an organization, people will not team up, communicate or consult about important tasks that require collaboration and multiple perspectives. Also, having preconceived notions about the way things should be done—that is, the majority view—forces people with different working styles, experience and viewpoints to bend to the will of the majority rather than expanding their skills and talents.

Seven Ways to Spot Bias in Your Workplace
   Bias isn’t simply defining people by the way they look. It’s also about limiting the incredible wealth of perspectives, backgrounds, ideas, skills, talents, problem-solving styles and creativity that are in your talent pool. Thinking of diversity this way opens up new ways to talk about changing the workplace culture. Here are some common signs to watch for that couldsignal the existence of isms in your company.

  • “Extracurricular” diversity programs. When diversity and inclusion workshops are offered as occasional extracurricular activities, the practice demonstrates a lack of organizational commitment to cultural competency. Diversity and inclusion should be policy, not an extra that’s subject to cost cutting.

  • Chronic absenteeism or high turnover rates. Are women constantly quitting? Do Asians, Hispanics and African-Americans seem to come and go? Low retention among certain groups could be a red flag that your organization needs to do more to reach out to and include valuable employees.

  • Poor performance. Performance problems are often blamed on people rather than on organizational structures, systems and ways of doing things—that is, the organization’s culture. Poor employee performance can also result from factors such as stress, exclusion and lack of opportunity.

  • A dominant decision-making style. Is risk-taking discouraged? Have employees been given the message “It’s our way or the highway”? A single way to get things done may seem to be efficient management, but it both discourages multiple perspectives and styles and leaves exceptional talent and ideas untapped.

  • Homogenous leadership. Is your C-suite all white and all male? Or all one race and the same gender? What about your department heads? Organizations that truly value diversity and inclusion practice what they preach. If the same people are getting passed over for promotion, cultural competence may be a problem at the top.

  • Water-cooler slights. Seemingly innocent racist, sexist, ageist or other insensitive jokes are a sign that the company culture tolerates disrespectful behavior. The use of mascots, symbols or holiday celebrations that exclude certain groups is another sign. Such everyday conversations and activities can unwittingly hurt co-workers.

  • Not using diverse suppliers. Companies that are truly committed to building a diverse and inclusive organization in order to be innovative and competitive will also seek out diverse suppliers.

    Becoming aware of your company’s underlying biases is a good first step. I hope you will extend that awareness out into the workplace and engage employee groups in diversity dialogue.

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