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Imagine you’re a hospital administrator and you have recently hired a new physician with a difficult-to-pronounce name: Adaeze Adebayo-Opeyemi. But she offers both you and her patients a seemingly easy option: “Just call me Dr. Daisy!” she says cheerfully. Do you?

Clinical psychologists Stephanie Pinder-Amaker and Lauren Wadsworth share this and other examples of the interpersonal slips, goofs and dilemmas that accompany diversity and inclusivity in the workplace in their new book Did That Just Happen!? Their overriding message is not to put the cart before the horse. Organizations with little diversity fall into that trap, for example, when they place a bunch of stock photos on their website showing people of all backgrounds working together, expecting to improve their company’s image and maybe even attract diverse new recruits. Instead, you must first be anchored to a strong horse before moving forward. And that comes from grappling with the actual tough issues related to diversity – such as in the case of “Dr. Daisy.”

The solution to that situation was proposed by her boss: “I really appreciate the offer, and it might seem less awkward for both of us in the short term. I apologize that it’s taken me several times to learn your full name, but I will. It’s important to me that I say your name properly. I want to be able to introduce you with ease to people throughout our organization.”

Let’s look at another example. Malik, an African-American neuropsychiatric researcher, was seeking a grant from a foundation. That organization’s chair, Charles, was dominating the meeting with off-topic anecdotes, when he remarked about one person in a story: “And this man was Black!” He turned to Malik, the only person of colour in the room, and added, “I mean … blacker than you.” His next words might have wisely been an apology, but instead he only dug himself in deeper: “Well, you’re not really Black, I suppose.”

Silence followed. Authors Dr. Pinder-Amaker and Dr. Wadsworth call it “the freeze.” Stomachs drop, and people wonder, “Did he just say that?” They fret: Should I say anything?

It’s probably not the first slight Malik has faced because of his colour. The impact on him, the psychologists stress, is cumulative. “The freeze is dangerous because although the room may be filled with allies and advocates, the observed silence and inaction can be painful for the target and convey that this type of behaviour is okay,” they write.

Often it’s not safe to speak out. The offender might hold power. But for those who hold a little more privilege than the target of unfortunate statements, the responsibility is on them to speak up. In this case, the vice-president of development deftly redirected the discussion, which is one tactic. If she was secure in her position and upsetting Charles was not unduly risky, she could acknowledge the moment more directly: “I think we should stop here – I don’t think that is an appropriate way to talk about race.” That could embarrass Charles, but the psychologists warn we too often have been trained to keep privileged offenders comfortable and safe.

A third option is to pull him aside afterward and say, “The comments you made about race in the meeting made me uncomfortable and I think conveyed a message that reflects negatively on the foundation.” That keeps it from being about Malik, and instead directs the focus to the impact on others and the organization.

Those are glaring situations. Less obvious can be when individuals are thriving in the workplace by “swimming with the school” – suppressing their thoughts, opinions and experiences to feel safe and gain acceptance from the in-group. For instance, Dr. Wadsworth suppressed her sexual orientation before feeling she had built up enough credits to absorb the professional hit of sharing an identity that deviated from the workplace norm. Even after coming out, she waited a few months before starting to advocate for revisions to existing intake forms to make them more inclusive for LGBTQ people and others.

Both psychologists stress we all swim with the school to some extent when starting a new job. But it’s a waste of precious human resources, they point out. “Leadership should recognize this dynamic, and that their company is not immune to it,” they say.

Consider naming the dynamic in an organizational town hall to stimulate discussion. Admit how a lack of diverse identities amongst the current leadership has led to a limited understanding of how to create an inclusive and sustainable workplace experience for various types of people. And this shortfall applies even to organizations with apparent diversity: Your business might be owned by a Black woman, but are gender non-conforming or transgender individuals trying to swim with the school? “Individuals who find themselves swimming in the stream need to know and trust that this is not their problem to fix,” the authors write.

It’s awkward and complicated work, involving lots of self-examination, exploration and dialogue. Reflect on why your organization isn’t diverse now. Keep in mind that training on topics such as gender, sexual orientation and citizenship status are more likely to be viewed as helpful by those with privileged identities than those who have been historically marginalized. And avoid the urge to move the discussion to logistics planning instead of more discomfiting identity-related discussions. As Dr. Pinder-Amaker and Dr. Wadsworth put it: “The ability to name and sit with discomfort is one of the most important muscles to develop in becoming a more inclusive organization.”

Cannonballs

  • If you want your team to move fast, consultant Claire Lew suggests in her newsletter asking this question to each of them regularly: “What can I take off your plate?”
  • People in positions of power are more likely to blame and punish others for poor performance, a study shows. The experiment found that the more powerful that people believed they were, the more likely they were to feel a person failing to meet a deadline because of the burden of other work had a choice, and thus was to blame and should suffer a financial penalty.
  • A good question to ask job seekers in interviews is: “Did the pandemic impact your career goals?” Deborah Sweeney, CEO of MyCorporation.com, also recommends another thoughtful pandemic-related query: “What did you achieve over the last year that you’re most proud of?”

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