Welcoming diversity into your workplace and encouraging an inclusive and accepting culture is something most employers are continually working towards. A collaborative mix of people from varied backgrounds, combined with the right support and management, leads to a more productive and creative workforce. While this is all a laudable goal, we also need to be aware that there are still potentially stumbling blocks along the way. One of these is the potential for well-meaning co-workers to unintentionally isolate representatives of minority groups.

The thing that first springs to mind in this area is, for want of a better phrase, the ’banter’ factor. This is where what is intended as good-natured joking focuses on difference and, by doing so, alienates members of the team. The good news here is that we are seeing more awareness of this these days, and it is being addressed. However, there is another form of this that people are less aware of that can be rather disenfranchising. It is when representatives of minorities are unintentionally put in the position of being an ambassador for their difference.

Intrusion, curiosity and explaining the ‘other’

There is a distinction between natural interest in your co-workers and intrusion. We all know where most of the boundary lines are. We would never, for example, ask a colleague about the ins and outs of a medical condition, but we certainly would feel (and importantly should feel) able to ask a colleague in distress if they were feeling OK. The distinction of what is socially acceptable, however, is less visible in some cases. One of these is the unwanted burden of explaining ‘otherness’ to a well-meaning colleague.

It is natural to want to know a little more about the people you spend time with. The workplace discussion is always going to turn to family life, interests outside work and similar off job topics. It is perfectly acceptable to be gregarious and curious because we are social animals. In fact, this bonding creates a team environment and can be a big factor in understanding the needs of everyone in the workplace. In short, the ability to converse in a friendly way is a good thing for everyone.

Sometimes, though, discussion can inadvertently turn to a conversation about difference. Concentration on the ‘otherness’ of a colleague is very different from a general chat about background or social lives. It is the difference between asking what someone did for the weekend and asking if ‘they’ do anything ‘different’ at the weekends because of their religion. In either case, a well-meaning colleague has the intention of being curious about a co-worker’s background without intending to make them uncomfortable. The emphasis on otherness in the second question, however, can create a need to justify or explain something. It feels like the cultural or religious part of their life requires justification against what the questioner feels to be normal. From the questioner’s point of view, however, they were more likely seeking understanding or attempting to be, somewhat ironically perhaps, inclusive.

You are not an ambassador and should not be expected to be one

The situation we have described in the previous paragraph is perhaps a little overstated for the sake of exemplification. However, it is important to identify and address this issue in the work setting or a great deal of labour to promote inclusivity can be very quickly undermined.

  • Teams need to be trained to recognise this potential problem and be more aware of how to avoid creating it. This requires rather gentle treatment with sensitivity to both sides. You are looking to promote an open culture. Any training needs to encourage discourse and interaction between colleagues and not stifle it.
  • It is important that someone feeling isolated by this kind of approach is aware that the intention is not usually to cause offence. The feeling of otherness is a strong motivator for anger, mistrust, and other unproductive mindsets. Again, training should seek a resolution for these feelings but not devalue them. It is right to initially react negatively to these situations, but the resolution is what matters.
  • As a result of one of these situations, it is easy for the questioner to feel blamed and, as a natural response, victimised for what was, in their view, an attempt to be inclusive. Again, the irony of this is that unless they see and empathise with the reason for the taken offence, they will often start to feel marginalised themselves. Good training will be about understanding, not blame. Understanding and discussion are the best responses – not anger and further isolation.
  • Nobody needs to feel pressured into being an ambassador, so generating a workplace environment where an employee feels able to offer a variation of ‘I would rather not discuss this’ in a non-confrontational but firm way is the end goal.

 

It is not the role of any employee to play interpreter or ambassador for their race, religion, sexuality, gender, or any other aspect of their lives unless they wish to do so. Neither is it acceptable for them to be forced into this position by colleagues, whether intentionally or not. The latter of these, where a genuine curiosity and desire to befriend or be inclusive, oversteps is a genuinely sad position to be in. An ideal workplace culture will foster these good intentions in a more appropriate way.

 

Contact us, and let’s discuss how to raise awareness of the right way to promote inclusivity.