"Hey, Mariam, how was your Kwanzaa?" a co-worker at a previous employer once asked me.
"I don't celebrate Kwanzaa," I answered, smiling.
"Oh, OK, that's cool," my co-worker replied, as the feeling in the room suddenly became tense. I turned to my computer screen and pretended that this uncomfortable interaction never occurred.
Unfortunately, such situations are not an anomaly for me and other people of diverse origins. We as HR professionals have been trained to shy away from informally discussing "hot topics" in the workplace. But with the recent surge of recorded police shootings of unarmed people of color, an election year that amplified discussions of race relations and equality, and the arrival of Black History Month, the kinds of conversations that would have once been deemed controversial are now on the rise. These can be valuable and important discussions, but we need to know how to hold these conversations without offending anyone.
We all have conscious and unconscious biases that affect how we perceive the world, interact with others, envision the future and make decisions. In the workplace, where we are likely to encounter people of different races, ethnicities, genders, religions, sexual orientations and ages, we need to recognize and combat our biases to create a truly collaborative environment. Although biases are not easily erased, we can take steps to recognize them and their impact on those around us.
This is where Global & Cultural Effectiveness, one of the SHRM-defined HR competencies, comes into play. It is defined as the ability to value and consider the perspectives and backgrounds of all people. Some of the behaviors indicating proficiency in Global & Cultural Effectiveness are: demonstrating nonjudgmental respect for others' perspectives; possessing self-awareness and humility in order to learn from others; and appreciating the commonalities, values and individual unique attributes of all human beings. All of these behaviors are needed to effectively collaborate with others on the job.
According to a SHRM Online article on diversity councils, "Leading organizations increasingly see business value—and results—from their efforts to link diversity and inclusion to their business strategy." True diversity is achieved not just by ensuring that candidates from various backgrounds are selected for employment but by creating a culture of inclusion in which all employees feel that they are equally contributing and accepted members of the organization. Diversity-driven incentive programs and diversity networking groups are a great start but can reach their full potential only in an environment that supports open communication and understanding. Opening up a dialogue on a personal level supports inclusion efforts and can also translate into new ideas and thought processes that can help solve workplace challenges and enhance the organization as a whole.
So what should we as HR professionals do? Life coach and author Allison Manswell provides some great tips in her book Listen In: Critical Conversations on Race in the Workplace (JRM Publishing, 2015) on how to have productive workplace conversations about diversity:
- Seek to understand. All of us have experience-tinted lenses that affect how we perceive the world. The key, therefore, is to look outside of what we think we know and what we have experienced and to try to understand things from others' perspectives. We must also learn to recognize verbal and nonverbal cues indicating that someone might have taken offense to something that was said.
- Be willing to engage and be vulnerable. If you aren't sure what to say in a particular situation, simply tell the other person that. Showing vulnerability encourages others to do so as well.
- Accept responsibility for becoming part of the solution. Individually we may not be responsible for the awkwardness in certain situations, but collectively we can acknowledge the part we have played and agree to work together toward a solution.
Stepping out of your comfort zone to speak on issues surrounding diversity is a daunting task. But deciding to engage in a productive manner will have a greater impact on workplace relationships than neglecting to do so. Taking that leap is a great opportunity to set the tone for inclusion throughout your organization—and a learning experience to take with you throughout life.
Mariam Ganiyu, MA, is an HR competencies intern at SHRM.