Communication Coworkers Morale

A Respectful and Racially Diverse Workplace

Since today is the day we remember and reflect on the life of Dr. Martin Luther King, it is appropriate to discuss race and respect in the workplace.

Many American neighborhoods, public schools and churches are still overwhelmingly segregated.  The workplace remains one of the few places where those from diverse backgrounds routinely interact. Because Americans from different ethnic groups still have a lot to learn about one another, however, the workplace is often the site of racially offensive behavior.

Sometimes colleagues unintentionally make racial gaffes, and other times prejudice is to blame for their bad behavior at work. It’s in every employee’s interest to avoid culturally inappropriate behaviors in the workplace.

If you can’t say anything nice…

It seems obvious that racial slurs should be a no-no at work, but an employee of African-American descent was stunned recently when a white coworker referred to an Arab-American coworker as a “towelhead.” Apparently, the woman figured that the African-American wouldn’t be offended that she used the term because she isn’t from the Middle East.

That turned out not to be true, a mistake that could have cost the woman her job.

Don’t use race to describe

If you can’t recall a coworker’s name, it’s not appropriate to refer to her as “that Asian lady in sales” or “that black chick in operations.”  If your workplace is predominantly white, think about what you would do to describe a white colleague whose name you don’t know. You might describe what he’s wearing or his height and build.

Try using these same strategies to describe your colleagues of color. Then, “that Asian lady in sales” becomes “the tall woman in the red blazer.”  By taking a few seconds longer to describe someone, you can avoid giving colleagues the impression that their race is first on your mind.

Make assignments based on skill sets, not race

You’re a manager of a company whose new set of clients is Mexican American. Naturally, you assign the Latino man in your department to the case. In fact, anytime you deal with Mexican-American clients, you make sure to involve your lone Latino employee. It’s a smart way to do business, right? Not necessarily.

If there’s a language barrier—the clients speak Spanish and the Latino employee is the only one in the office who can communicate with them—this move makes sense. But to pair up employees with clients simply based on cultural background doesn’t always pay off. Employees should be paired with clients who need services in which they have a strong skill set and range of experiences.

If clients felt that uncomfortable working with those from different ethnic backgrounds, they likely would have sought out a Latino-owned company with which to do business. What’s more is that if you keep directing all of your Latino clientele to your Latino employee, he may begin to think that you only trust him to do business with his own “kind.”

There is a myriad of scenarios where racial bias could creep up.  As a manager, work diligently to treat everyone fairly and to make race a non-issue in your place of work, especially when making decisions on hiring employees and during job interviews.

In the words of Dr. King, “All labor that uplifts humanity has dignity and importance  and should be undertaken with painstaking excellence.”


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