I Did Not Mean It
If you are a voracious consumer of the news like me, it seems like there is a never-ending stream of stories highlighting situations where an individual felt mistreated, slighted, or not shown due respect because of who they are. Despite the Obama administration’s efforts to protect the rights of minorities in the workplace, we continue to read about egregious behavior by people like Harvey Weinstein and Matt Lauer.
For years, management at these organizations failed to penalize both men for their predatory conduct even though numerous credible claims had been filed. Thanks in part to social media, the #MeToo movement gave others the courage to step forward too.
Facing mounting pressure from stakeholders and to prevent further damage to each brand’s reputation, leadership was forced to take action. Finally, Harvey and Matt were held accountable for violating not only workplace conduct guidelines, but also the law of the land. In the end, NBC’s brand reputation took a major hit while The Weinstein Company was forced to declare bankruptcy.
Unfortunately, many of those impacted chose to quit because they no longer believed their employer was committed to creating an inclusive environment where everyone’s voice mattered. In my more than 25 years of working with clients, I have learned there are little things we say or do every day that can produce the same result—making others feel inferior and unwelcome, even when we did not mean to do so. Intentional or not, discourteous interactions not only serve to dilute collegiality, but research shows they also impact the bottom line by lowering productivity and increasing attrition.
At this point, you must be saying to yourself, “Of course, Wes; I know telling an off-color joke is a bad idea for a slew of reasons.” But I wonder if you can identify that the following statements might be sending a very different message than you thought:
A white friend who consistently has relationships with African-American men shows up at a party with a date. As you are talking to your friend, a mutual acquaintance walks up and says, “Is it true what they say about black men?”
My friend has gotten this question many times before. While it could mean something else, most of the time the person wants to know if his date is endowed. How do you think the white guy feels, assuming that a reason he dates black men is because of their penis size vs. whether or not they have something in common?
My suggestion is to focus less on the superficial (i.e. color of his date’s skin) and more on who the date is. This way, you come across as someone who is sincerely interested in getting to know each of them.
At the start of a meeting, the team lead says, “Oh my God, this is such a diverse group!”
Though said in an attempt to let others know the team lead values diversity, this can often be seen as a cliché, especially by those who are not part of the majority group. In research conducted by the non-profit Catalyst, survey data showed that those in underrepresented groups “would really like to feel inside...to be seen as normal and not to be seen as a minority every time I step into a room.”
What the team lead might consider doing as an alternative is to begin the meeting by asking people to introduce themselves, state where they grew up, what they studied in school, and what they love to do on the weekends. This allows each participant to really get to know their colleagues, forming relationships with people based on who they are vs. what they may assume about them based on identifiable characteristics they can see (e.g., race, gender).
Upon learning a friend is pregnant, you ask, “How much time are you taking off when you have your baby?”
For working women, having children can often be a barrier to advancement. Research shows managers may be reluctant to assign certain projects, knowing the woman will be out of the office for anywhere from three weeks to four months. So, depending on where the person works, answering the question is tricky.
Instead, how about asking if she has selected a name, or share some of your personal or family experiences following the birth of a child. This avoids adding stress to the woman who may feel judged if the timeframe she gives is too short or too long.
Finally, keep in mind that if someone does say something that could be deemed offensive, don’t assume they meant it that way. Often, they just are unaware. So take them aside later and tell them. This helps all of us communicate better with each other. ▼
Wesley Combs is a diversity and inclusion expert and a passionate social justice advocate. He is the founding Principal of Combs Advisory Services where he works with clients who share his values of enabling equity, equality, and opportunity in the workplace and the community.