A WINN EXPERIENCE

 

By: Winston Mattis, April 15, 2015

 

In a recent Linkedin post, the contributor wondered out loud about the future of Diversity. Does anyone care about diversity?, the thought Leader queried.  The question generated a fair amount of responses with opinions spanning the gamut. More recently, there has been a plethora of commentary about diversity in technology-based corporations, and women in the corporate leadership space just to name a few areas of interest. Of course, Fortune Magazine’s recently published article on the abysmal scorecard of tech giants on achieving diversity provided a glimpse into the gap between talk of diversity and diversity-related results.

It is easy to become pessimistic about efficacy of diversity as a change initiative.  If nothing else, it seems that the plethora of information, studies and commentary on the question of workplace diversity point to one inevitable conclusion—change is slow. And diversity has not had the traction that many advocates hoped for, even after making the business case for its existence. But, why is it that diversity initiatives are out of sync with expectations? And does anyone in corporate America and Corporate Canada really care about diversity beyond simply paying it a whole lot of lip service?

WINN offers no definitive answer to the questions posed. However, a persuasive case can be made that the failure of diversity initiatives to achieve statistically significant results is related to the attitude of decision makers within organizations.  Until business leaders learn how to check, and counteract their own biases the dream of an inclusive, diverse organization may well remain an elusive ideal. It is naive to think that simply learning to check one’s bias without doing more is going to have a magical inclusive impact on corporate work spaces. However, learning vigilantly to recognize, check and at the very least neutralize one’s own biases may have noticeably and positive impact on the results of diversity initiatives.  Here is a personal story that highlights the essence of what is being said.

It is the first really warm day of spring 2015.  I decide to sit in a somewhat quiet space and complete WINN’s first ever book review. Off I go to the local McDonald’s at which I can sit, enjoy a coffee and people watch while I work to assemble and organize my thoughts.

As I get out my vehicle, I snatch my lap top, slug it under my arms for safe keeping, and slam shut the doors of the vehicle I am driving. In that moment, a red Chrysler Sebring pulls up. The driver is a middle-aged, white female. She seems entranced; her entire body is consumed by blaring echoes of a tune I seem to recognize.  Totally engulfed with Amy Whinehouse’s music she does not initially notice that I have delayed proceeding past her open car doors out of politeness. She continues; she pounds real hard on her steering wheel as she bops her head incessantly to the beat of the music seemingly to increase the pleasure of the music. Every cell in her body appears excited by the musical experience.  She continues to be oblivious to my presence. I am more direct by now, trying to wiggle through the tiny space between her car door and my vehicle.   Up.  Down. Up. Down. Her head bops seemingly uncontrollably at a rapid, and intoxicating pace. Maddening is the sound of the thumping bass which renders her in a dissociative state. After several moments, she abruptly turns off the vehicle, and yank the keys out of the ignition. A young boy and a young girl emerge from the vehicle with her. Neither one could be any more than fourteen years of age. They stretch their legs, waiting for directions from the adult female.

Emerging from this vehicle is a woman, small in stature. She sports a dirty blonde.  The woman looks me straight I the eye and says rather emphatically, “I just love her music”.  I just love Amy Whinehouse”. I can’t get enough of her music, especially on a day like today”, as she shuts the driver’s side door of her red hot Sebring.

“Why, is that?”, my curiosity is now peaked.

“Her music relaxes me. And I am stressed! Her music relaxes me”, she carries on as the two children drift further away giving distance between her and I.

“What is stressing you out?”, I inquired further?

“I run a business”, she says?

Looking for the perfect pivot to plug WINN, I ask: “oh, what kind of business?”

“I am a corporate event planner.”

Oh. I see. “So, you do not plan weddings or any of that stuff. You just work on the corporate side”, I sheepishly muttered?

“Yes”, the woman confirmed.

“That is great. What is your name?”, I probed.

“M”, she answered half heartedly, as the music continued to pump, only now exclusively in her head. “She died so tragically”, ‘M’ shifted the subject.

“A drug over doze took her early”, I remarked in an effort to empathize and demonstrate subject-matter knowledge.  “They (her niece and nephew) do not even know who she is”, the woman complained.

“Well, she only died a few years ago, but oh well they do not know”, I grunted.

“She was from London, my home town”, M said, almost as if she was paralyzed by a personal loss.

“Oh. Are you from London, England?”, I asked with a slight degree of eagerness.

“Oh yes. I am”,  ‘M’ confirmed with pride and an obvious glow in both her eyes

“I lived in London for about a year. I was in Brixton. You know, the Stockwell area”, were my next utterances.

“Ahhhhhhhh. That is a bad area. There were riots in Brixton. It is a bad area”.

“It was not a bad area when I was there. In fact, when I was there yuppies had started buying up houses in the area and converting them into incredible living spaces”,   I retaliated.

“Well, it is a bad area now”, she insisted. There are all these Arabs living there now. It is just a bad area now. And I can’t stand those Arabs. They bombed my underground, man”.

“Well, the British are not exactly saints you know? I mean, throughout history, the British did wage war on lots of folk”. Abruptly she cut me off.

“I do not want to talk to you about that stuff, man. Don’t even start.  They bombed my underground. Don’t start.”  By now ‘M’ was now instantly filled with emotion bordering on rage and instant hate. With tremor in her voice, and visibly annoyed, ‘M’ looked me up and down and then said: “Don’t talk to me about these people, man.”

My back now straight up, I exclaimed: “whooaaa, ‘M’. Hang on. Give me your hand for a second.” Reluctantly she did, clutching her two hand bags she carried closer to her side.

As I held her hand I said in a soft and gentle tone:  “you know, war is a human condition……….”

Snap! Her white hand had now gone a bit pinkish as she abruptly yanked them from mine. Frustrated and visibly taken aback ‘M’ said: ‘Don’t talk to me about that stuff. I want to hear nothing about that crap.”

You started it ‘M’”, I reminded her, as her niece and nephew joined in concurring with me in the process.

Not another word came out of ‘M’’s mouth.  Though we stood behind each other in the McDonald’s line up, there was not another utterance that came from ‘M’s mouth about the subject. It was as if I did not exist, and the conversation never happened. She just moved on, as incredible as it may sound. I was not on her side. So, the conversation abruptly ended.

What does this little story have to do with the future of workplace diversity. At first blush, the answer seems clear—nothing.   Look a little further, though.   Let’s deconstruct some of the elements in this story.

‘M’ is a White woman from England. She is a business woman. She is either employed by, or works alongside corporate Canada as an event planner. I am assuming that her responsibilities could span the gamut from planning corporate social events, to conferences, and other educational type activities. Regardless of the scope of ‘M’s functional responsibilities,  ‘M’  was quick to tell me that she was a business woman who is in the workforce working in corporate Canada. Whether ‘M’ occupies a managerial position or not is irrelevant. Her biases are likely going to be displayed in the workplace.

The word “Arab” does not denote citizenship. Nor does it solely denote a religious background.  It connotes both a religious, cultural and national identities. It cannot be seriously argued that in today’s world, Arabs/Muslims are being painted broadly as civil society’s enemy.  Arab, as an identifier, in North American society is a loaded term that traverses identity politics, among other things.

That being said, one cannot help but wonder out loud how many folks like ‘M’ are employed in North American companies. How many folks like ‘M’ are in managerial positions who are disgusted with Arabs/Muslims. Perhaps ‘M’ was comfortable enough with me openly to express her bias. Perhaps I was constructed as an exception. Perhaps my ‘blackness’ circumscribed her cognitive ability to construct me possibly as an “Arab”.  It is doubtful that ‘M’ would have uttered those words to me had she subjectively come to a place where she believed I was an “Arab”. It is implausible to believe that ‘M’ would have expressed her thoughts and biases about “Arabs” had the interchange occurred in the workplace. In other words, political correctness would have served to mask ‘M’ true feelings in the workplace.

Chances are that the way that ‘M’ feels about Arabs is an attitude shared by many in corporate Canada and America. In fact, Arab women in contemporary discourse are constructed and partially understood as un-Canadian. Canada’s Prime Minister Stephen Harper confirmed this orientation, even though it remains unclear whether the Prime Minister’s reference to un-Canadian meant “anti-Canadian”, or simply “not of Canada”. Mr. Harper’s views of Muslim women is shared at least by the legislators who tabled Bill 60 in Quebec. Whether ‘M’s’ business dealing will expand is also an open question. Will she one day become a sizeable employer?

WINN suspects that there may well be many ‘M’-types occupying senior and other positions in Canadian and American workplaces. Since, it is highly unlikely that ‘M’ is alone in her attitude towards Arabs, it seems clear that achieving diversity in many corporate establishments is riding an uphill battle.  Speculation, one might say. How can one extrapolate so generally from a single, isolated incident.  While the incident may be isolated, a conclusion not conceded, ‘M’s’ attitude is not.  War in the middle East, 911, the Syrian civil war, ISIS and a host of other geo-political events have had the attendant consequence of labeling “Arabs” as a group as the enemy.

‘M’ attitude and behavior highlights many questions upon which organization touting diversity may want to contemplate. For now, WINN reproduces some, though not all of them as follows:

 

  1. How might ‘M’s’ vocalized attitude toward Arabs impact her niece and nephew who one day will enter the workplace?

 

  1. Are women more or less likely to be supportive of the diversity initiatives, regardless of personal experience with one or more persons in an identifiable group marked by ethnicity, religion, culture, etc.?

 

  1. What tools are available in the hiring process and beyond to predict, if not detect the attitudes ‘M’ displayed in this story? Should hiring practitioners even attempt to predict or uncover ‘M-type’ attitudes?

 

  1. Is the position of Chief Diversity Office in organizations simply the hot seat for identity politics?

 

  1. Is it reasonable to think that ‘M’ can ever get past her biases were she ever to be put in a position of interviewing a Arab candidate for a job?

 

  1. Supposing ‘M’s boss uncovered ‘M-type’ attitude behavior, when, if ever, should she ever be a candidate for promotion?

 

  1. Would an Arab boss be justified in refusing to hire, or in the alternative terminate ‘M’ if her attitude was uncovered?

Should anyone, including shareholders, even care about these issues, so long as the corporation meets the bottom-line performance target? This brings us back full circle. Does anyone care about diversity issues in corporate North America? Perhaps the better question is when should anyone care about diversity in the workplace?