The Conundrum of Upholding Comfort or Conviction at Work

In response to the recent HBR article about people of color feeling uncomfortable at work.

In my experience, being the advertising world, an industry that is paradoxically not known for diversity, it is critical for me to understand the role I symbolize in the organization and how others perceive me. Once I understand how I’m seen, this information allowed me to adjust my strategies in dealing with the job and my team at work.

The industry hails itself as having a deep understanding of human behavior and motivations in order to cater to them, but it’s rating on having a diverse workforce is considerably low.

When I joined my company, it was visible that I was one of only a handful of minorities not just in my team, but my organization. In fact, I think out of all the accounts within the agency, we were probably the most diverse– all 5 of us in a team of about 40. Dismally, there wasn’t much diversity to begin with. A year and a half later, while there have been many additions and changes within my team, it barely reflects a multicultural work force. This is the reality of the agency world. But, does it have to continue this way?

My difference was, and still is, palpable. I have ideas that are outside of majority thinking. I have a slight accent which people could not locate. My communication coach said, “That’s nothing to hide. It makes you sound well-traveled.” During brainstorming sessions and discussions, I can see that my brain is wired differently from others- and I enjoy these as our contributions help the team arrive to better, richer ideas and nuanced solutions to problems. While I don’t know what my coworkers are thinking, the expressions strewn across their faces loudly asks, “Where is this girl from?”

As I walk the hallways at work, I am torn between being an advocate for and deemphasizing my difference. This concern– polar opposites that explain the conflict I deal with on a regular basis– revolves around my desire to promote diversity, and my need to assimilate with the rest of the team to be considered for the same opportunities, to be treated as an equal.

As a person of color, I want to be seen as equals. There is a difference between hiring for diversity’s sake in order to win industry accolades, and increasing the talent pool by attracting well-qualified minorities. Knowing where to find candidates and build programs that demonstrates a company’s commitment to a diverse, thriving culture is paramount. These candidates exist, but efforts need to be made to find them and make the case that they are valued in the organization.

At home, being respectful and showing good listening skills are highly valued. There is a saying in Asian culture, “The nail that sticks out gets hammered down,” which describes that there are negative consequences in standing out. This is at odds with the saying in Western culture, “The squeaky wheel gets the grease,” which describes that the more you stand out, the more you’ll be rewarded. I used to believe that they are corporate positions I will never be able to get because I was born in a different culture. This is exactly the kind of thinking that does not promote diversity- a deeply seated belief that there is only one image of success. How could I devalue the one of the greatest characteristics that I can contribute to the organization? I don’t believe that anymore and would be the first person to say that thought is completely unfounded. I have since understood that I can be feminine, reserved, gentle, and a fierce negotiator.

Success encompasses many images. If my image does not fit with what has historically been common or standard, then I will be the first to bear my image, and there is no backing down. Instead of thinking that I only have to be one or the other, I’ve come to appreciate that I can do both- I can quickly adapt in different situations at the snap of a finger. Straddling multiple environments is not something everyone has to deal with, and my experience is unique that way. Resilience should be a source of pride.

Being brought up in a calm, familial environment where peaceful agreement and deference to authority is prized, with almost no shouting, cursing, or vehement arguing (though lively debates are constant), I had to learn how to speak out in school and work. Conversely, as much as I strive to be assertive at work, I know that when I spend time with family and friends, I can’t continue the same forcefulness at home. We constantly have to evaluate changing environments and understand that our roles vary in each one and adapting to varying circumstances is important to enduring them while still keeping your sanity.

This diversity conversation is not just a two way dialogue between employers and employees, but a three-way conference that includes colleagues as well. I have made every effort to understand the culture of my organization and my team, and the onus is also on them to understand where I’m coming from. I demand respect when I feel none is given, and when contempt is persistent, I take it as a sign of being threatened. Who is this upstart that is shaking things up?

At the end of the day, I always choose to be an advocate. It is not easy to withstand the stares, eye rolls or backhanded, hushed comments that always make their way to me. There isn’t a lot of us minorities here, and the responsibility is ours to take. It is our job to educate others about the value of a diverse forum, not only because it affects me, but it affects them and everyone else they will encounter. If my difference makes people uneasy or uncertain, whether it’s due to disagreeing with their long-held notions of what they think is standard or bringing a new perspective to the table that they think is irrelevant, I continue to push for that seat in the conversation. Only then can I say I have done my job in taking the step toward a more inclusive culture and moving the conversation forward.

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