Cultivate Your Own Instead
Discrimination happens in the workplace every day.
Can you influence whether it comes your way?
The short answer: Yes.
Discrimination is often referenced with a very narrow view: Caucasian men vs. everyone else. It's not my intent to offend my white, male readers. The fact is, my very statement demonstrates that discrimination is your lot as well as everyone else's.
Discrimination is more prevalent than ever. The world is integrating across boundaries that previous generations would never have thought possible. Opportunities to experience discrimination certainly won't decrease anytime soon. In fact, I can say with full confidence that every one of you will experience discrimination at some point in your career. Do you believe you're safe?
Consider the characteristics that lead to discrimination in the workplace today: ethnicity, nationality, gender, age, disability, sexuality, and religion. But let's not stop there. Political affiliation, marital status, pregnancy, parenthood, weight, height, and level of fitness. Smoking, tattoos, piercings, style of dress, musical preferences, and extracurricular interests and activities. Your confidence, communication skills, sense of humor, work habits, and tenure. Even the department you work for, the products you support, and the teams you join - all can make you a target of discrimination at work.
Unfortunately, discrimination isn't actually very discriminating. People have built-in biases. We're all partial to what's familiar and comfortable. Denying discrimination its power in the workplace isn't about changing peoples' perceptions. That's too hard. We deny discrimination its power by keeping peoples' judgments from negatively influencing their behavior toward us in the workplace. We have power in our choices, and how we influence the choices of others.Normally I'd say that to avoid something, you should fully understand it. In this case, I'm not sure any of us can get to a place of complete understanding. People discriminate as an instinctive response, based on where they are or where they've been in their life. It's hard to understand the cause.
Can you avoid becoming a target of discrimination in the workplace? Yes.
Discrimination is defined as a prejudice or judgment that's made against an individual based on their association with a group. It generally involves disadvantageous treatment, although you don't really have to be harmed by discrimination. You simply have to be treated differently - generally worse - than someone else.
There are times when discrimination rears its ugly head and you have absolutely no ability to influence it. There are other times, however, when your choices in the workplace draw discrimination toward you. I recognize the controversy in the assertion, but ask that you read a bit further to see if my perspective holds any truth for you.
Below are a few strategies you can try for yourself to avoid becoming a target of discrimination in the workplace.
1. Avoid The Lure of Discrimination.
There's fantastic lure in being a victim, believing others are out to get you. Sometimes, without question, others ARE out to get you with discrimination, prejudice and judgment as their weapons of choice. Other times, though, no one is out to get you. How can you know for sure? Your instincts can be a great guide in these circumstances. They can also do you a huge disservice if you aren't aware of your own hidden biases.
I mentioned earlier that we all have biases and judgments. Stereotypes settle in the back of our minds with years of exposure. They develop from our experiences, the opinions of our family and friends, and the media. The fact that stereotypes co-exist with other thoughts in our daily lives doesn't mean we agree with them or cast judgment based on them. Sometimes we can easily dismiss stereotypes and the associated judgments as nonsense. Other times, we have to work to overcome their influence. Everyone experiences this.
Have you ever met someone and seen the reflection of a stereotype flash before their eyes as they look at you? That person is having an immediate and instinctive response, associating you with a pre-conceived judgment or stereotype. The judgment may pass as quickly as it came, but often, unintentional damage has been done. As with many things, our first response when we feel judged... is to judge in return.
When we find ourselves in this situation, we almost always put the other person in a box of judgment as a defense mechanism. And so starts a cycle of discrimination, all from the subtle unspoken messages exchanged upon meeting someone. What someone else starts, you perpetuate, without either of you intending to do so.
It's important when considering discrimination to acknowledge our own judgments and build tolerance for the judgments of others. The key to managing discrimination, particularly in the workplace, is to acknowledge and overcome its natural lure.
What matters most is how someone behaves, not what they believe. This is true for you, and equally true for others. You have no way of knowing if someone is judging you unfairly in their mind. It's possible they fight giving in to stereotypes every day of their life, and for good reason given their history and experience. You may find yourself having to do the same. If you feel judged, take it personally, and judge in return - you draw a cycle of discrimination to you. Don't give in to the lure of discrimination by making assumptions. Let behavior rule the day.
Bottom line: Let the actions of others speak more loudly than your own assumptions. Give people the opportunity not to discriminate in their actions, regardless of your perception of their beliefs. Behavior matters in the workplace. Beliefs don't.
2. Don't Arm For Battle and Don't Conform. Just Adapt.
One of the skills most valued in organizations is the ability to work collaboratively with others. Building rapport, aligning around a shared purpose, and achieving with, and through, others is the holy grail of success in business. It can only be accomplished if you're open, accessible, and able to relate to others. Those characteristics are impossible if you're discriminating toward others or being targeted for discrimination yourself.
Stepping away from your comfort zone to embrace people of all kinds is challenging for everyone. Workplace environments are rarely homogeneous. You may work with people who are of another ethnicity, sexual orientation, or generation. You may be more conservative or more liberal than your team, a parent surrounded by child-less colleagues, or of a religion your co-workers don't understand. You may be the sole exception among a broader base of team members, feeling different and exposed as a result.
Sometimes when we feel like we stand out, we take a defensive posture to protect ourselves from judgment. In doing so, it's like we're armed for battle in a sense. With protective barriers up, openness shuts down. It's virtually impossible to be relatable to others if we're trying to protect ourselves from judgment. Instead, our posture attracts judgment and discrimination because we make ourselves even more unfamiliar to our co-workers.
Success isn't gained through complete conformity either, where we try to think, act and speak like others to gain acceptance. That never works for any length of time. It's easy to start feeling like a robot. Others sense when you're faking it. You will eat your soul for breakfast every morning if conformity is your goal. I don't recommend conformity, ever.
If preparing for battle isn't the right approach and neither is conformity, what is? Avoiding discrimination and prejudice in the workplace is about being ourselves, but still having the ability to relate to others and gain acceptance. This generally comes with being adaptable to the broad set of norms, or acceptable behaviors, that exist in your workplace.
Bottom line: If you're open, accessible and able to relate to others, you are far less likely to be discriminated against. Don't arm for battle and don't conform. Just adapt as best you can to fit in and co-exist without discord.
3. Cast A Wide Net.
I'm a big fan of authenticity. I'm delighted by people who know who they are, and own it. Even if I don't particularly like who they are, I respect them for liking themselves enough to be authentic and fierce on their own terms.
Part of who we are includes the myriad of "groups" that we associate ourselves with on a daily basis, in real life and in our minds. You may associate yourself into classifications such as someone who is white, young, female, overweight, serious, quiet, a parent, with tattoos, and someone who loves art. People who share those characteristics are ones you'd likely find yourself relating to. You might be Latino, male, smart, fit, older, life of the party, and a community activist. Everyone has their story with characteristics about themselves that allow them to identify and connect with others.
Often in the workplace, people associate with those who share characteristics with them. Associations can develop through common interests, such as fitness, parenthood, or environmental causes. Our associations with others can also develop because of a shared threat of discrimination or judgment, such as being overweight, female, or of a particular sexual orientation or minority.
Most people find great comfort in their associations at work. The challenge is that the threat of discrimination is greater for you, the more visible your associations become. Here's what I mean. In the workplace, the more you're associated with your work and performance, the less likely you are to experience discrimination. The more you're associated with your characteristics, interests, or causes, the more likely you are to experience discrimination. Somewhere in the middle lies the perfect balance.
Standing out for your performance is great. Standing out for any other reason makes you a target. If you have visible and limited associations with your fellow co-workers, you're likely to be given a label by others. Labels are often what trigger discrimination. Being authentic to who you are is always important. Associating with people you relate to is equally important. Casting a wide net, to broaden your ability to relate to others in the workplace, is even more important. The easier it is for colleagues to relate to you, the less likely it is that you will attract discrimination. You don't have to like it. You just have to know that it's true.
Bottom line: Be your one-of-a-kind unique, fantastic self in the workplace. But be known first and foremost for your performance. Cast a wide net and associate with people of all kinds to avoid being labeled and judged by any one characteristic or interest.***
A good friend of mine asked me why I felt qualified to speak about discrimination. I'm apparently not an obvious candidate. I didn't even hesitate in my response. I moved every two years of my life as a child, facing judgment as "the new kid" over and over again. I've lived in multiple foreign countries, adapting to different cultures and their preconceived notions of me as an American. I've been judged at times as too young to be an executive, too feminine for power roles, too personable to demand performance from my staff, too small to defend myself, and too white for certain geographies and audiences. I am a strong, confident and highly capable woman, but I'm not without discrimination in my life. In every case, I've worked hard to push through judgments. More than once, I brought those judgments on myself through my choices. I've watched colleagues make this mistake as well. I'm writing about discrimination because I've learned some hard lessons, even as an unlikely target of discrimination.
I've learned to avoid the lure of discrimination. I try hard to give people the benefit of the doubt before I assume they have a prejudice against me. I also keep my own judgments in check, so I don't telegraph negativity to others unintentionally. I try to do it because it's the right thing to do, but also because I don't want or need the boomerang affect of judgment and discrimination. In my opinion, this is one of the most powerful things to master in your career and your life. I work on this every day.
I try to adapt in workplace environments, finding common ground with my colleagues. Sometimes I have to cultivate it if it doesn't come naturally. It's hard for me to conform, so I work to find a way to be authentic without separating myself too much from the rest of the pack. I like to be memorable as much as the next person. Generally, I try to stand out more because of my performance than my persona.
For me, working to deny the power of discrimination is a worthy pursuit. There are many reasons why someone might discriminate against me. I've been lucky and blessed in my life. I know I can't avoid all discrimination. I don't want to discriminate against others and I don't want them to discriminate against me. I refuse to give discrimination power when I have the ability to deny its influence. I'll say it again. For me, it's a worthy pursuit.
I look forward to your feedback.