Jewish World Review Feb. 11, 2003 / 9 Adar I, 5763

Marty Nemko

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Consumer Reports

The World's Shortest Course on Managing Diversity | It is often said that diversity is our greatest strength. It can also be a challenge.

Outside my private practice, I rarely hear complaints about diversity, but in the privacy of my office, things are different. I have career counseled almost 2,000 racially diverse people, and frequently, they complain that race or ethnicity is causing problems at work.

Here are paraphrases of concerns that my clients have raised, and my responses. To avoid polarizing, I omit the specific races and ethnicities.

CLIENT: All my supervisees who are (ethnic group inserted) take their breaks together and speak in their own language. How can I create a team atmosphere when they're off by themselves?

NEMKO: Legally, they're probably allowed to spend break time with whomever they choose. However, you might ask them if they self-segregate because they don't feel welcomed by others. Here are some strategies for building integration:

  • encourage supervisees to invite someone from a different culture to coffee or lunch.

  • change seating arrangements

  • ensure diversity in work subgroups

  • create an employee bulletin board with a photo and self-reported information about each employee's hobbies, family, etc. That can help employees find commonalities.

CLIENT: I always feel on my guard because of my race.

NEMKO: That must be a great burden. It's so difficult to tell when race is affecting the way you're treated at work. When you're confident that your race is hurting you, you might say, to the higher-up you most trust, something like, "I feel uncomfortable even raising the question, but for my peace of mind, I need your opinion. I have been passed over for promotion three times. Do you have a sense of whether my race was a factor?"

CLIENT: I'm scared when I have to give negative feedback to (race inserted.) They often claim or imply I'm being racist. I really don't believe that but I get so nervous when they suggest that. My heart pounds and I get defensive.

NEMKO: If you're sure race isn't a factor, then-difficult as it is-you must tactfully give that constructive criticism. If you don't, it's not fair to the employee or to yourself. The employee would go on without the benefit of the feedback. Also, if later, you're fed up and decide to fire that person, and you haven't, all along, been giving constructive criticism, that employee would have a stronger wrongful termination case: "I never got any criticism, and now suddenly I'm fired?"

CLIENT: I train lending officers in a large bank In almost every class, the trainees at the bottom of the class are disproportionately (race inserted.) I feel guilty if I don't spend a lot of class time helping them. But if I spend too much time helping them, I shortchange everyone else.

NEMKO: If you have the time, you might want to give weak trainees, of all races, extra help outside of class. Or in class, pair weak trainees with strong ones. Of course, both of those strategies reallocate resources from the higher-performing to the lower-performing trainees. An alternate philosophy is to focus your efforts on your top trainees, since they're the ones most likely to thrive as lending officers. A Gallup Organization survey of 60,000 top managers found that most of them focus on mentoring their top employees rather than on remediating weak ones.

CLIENT: My supervisor lets supervisees of his own race slide while being tough on everyone else. All my co-workers know this is true.

NEMKO: It may be too risky to tackle this alone. As a group, you and your co-workers might want to request a meeting with your supervisor. In the meantime, all of you should document examples of the perceived racism, and present them, verbally or in writing, to the supervisor. Try not to go into the meeting with your minds made up. The key to solving diversity problems, indeed many problems, is listening well to the other person's perspective.

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JWR contributor Dr. Marty Nemko is a career and education counselor in Oakland, California and hosts "Work With Marty Nemko," Sundays 11 to noon on KALW, 91.7FM. He is co-author of Cool Careers for Dummies and available for private consultation. Comment by clicking here.


02/03/02: The Good Employer
01/29/03: What do you want to be when you grow up?
01/15/02: Passion Finder
12/18/02: Curing procrastination
12/12/02: The World's Shortest Course on Self-Employment
12/05/02: Men as Beasts of Burden
11/21/02: Beware of going back to school

© 2003, Dr. Marty Nemko