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Racial Inclusion Doesn’t Happen if Organizations Ignore it

Hannah Miller | Thursday November 1st, 2012 | 0 Comments
racial inclusion in the workplace

Diversity cupcakes! (Photo by clevercupcakes, used with permission.)

“Civilization, in a sense, can be reduced to the word ‘welcome.’” – Stanley Crouch

In the Harvard Business Review a few weeks ago, a post explored survey results that showed more than 35 percent of African-Americans and Latinos and 45 percent of Asian Americans felt they had to hide their own personalities and selves to fit in at work. In the survey, race and ethnicity accounted for a much higher rate of African Americans (40 percent) and people of color in general (30 percent) feeling like outsiders at work, compared to twenty-six percent of whites.

The study, by the HR think tank the Center for Talent Innovation, is called “Vaulting the Color Bar: How Sponsorship Levers Minorities into Leadership.” In prior studies, CTI found even worse numbers, that only a third of Asian-Americans felt comfortable being their authentic selves at work and were avoiding talking about or wearing anything perceived as “too ethnic,” and high numbers of African Americans and women struggling with racial and gender stereotypes about management and communication styles. In managerial positions, a full 37 percent of people of color felt uncomfortable expressing themselves on the job.

There are the practical arguments for racial inclusion in the workplace, about employee retention, job performance, and so on; but more salient is the fact that we are all at work for eight to ten hours every day, and having to displace your personality is dehumanizing, and not healthy for anyone. (Some HR researchers call it “emotional labor,” the extra work people have to do to manage stereotypes or manifest emotions they don’t feel.)

So: how to create a workplace that isn’t spiritually deadening for a third of the people of color? That makes us all more vibrant?

According to UCLA Anderson School of Management professor Dr. Miguel M. Unzueta, one of the most effective ways of creating a welcoming environment is to address it in the founding documents of an organization, in the mission statement or multiculturalism policy. “Organizations that embrace multiculturalism as a philosophical credo allow people to express who they are,” said Dr. Unzueta. “Policies of colorblindness tend to backfire – saying we don’t see race is sort of like saying, ‘don’t think of an elephant.’ You think of an elephant.”

A 2009 study by University of Georgia researchers compared the two approaches, multiculturalism vs. colorblindness, and found that people of color were definitely more engaged (and happier) at companies where diversity was openly valued and reaffirmed through policies and the agreement of white coworkers, as measured in their survey responses.

One of the other things to consider is the difference between diversity and inclusion. One does not necessarily mean the other, according to Joseph Santana, who developed and implemented the diversity and inclusion program across’ Siemens USA 60,000 employees.

“One of the things I learned is that you can dramatically increase an organization’s diversity without really having a positive impact on inclusion,” said Santana, who now consults on inclusion efforts. “This is harder work than just bringing more diversity into the organization. Diversity can be driven through tried and tested programs,” he says. “Inclusion must be elicited from people.”


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