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Take Your Knee Off Our Necks!

Micheile Henderson-Unsplash

The world saw how the life of George Floyd was snuffed out of him by the white police officer who had his knee on his neck. To say it was outrageous is an understatement, and people immediately condemned what they saw. For me, I felt it on a deep, personal level because I have a husband, a son, brothers and nephews.

But, here’s one uncomfortable truth: after the dust settles, the invisible ‘knee-on-the-neck’ of black people in the workplace and in our schools will continue, unless some things change.

The Peel District School Board that has long ignored the cries of black parents about the treatment of our children was forced to acknowledge their knee-on-the-neck behaviour after parents, community members and two trustees decided enough was enough. It took the intervention of the Minister of Education to shake things up.

Being quiet is comfortable. Being silent serves no one, and I am done with both. For anyone who watched that white officer kneeling on the neck of George Floyd until he breathed his last breath, I would like you to envision the same thing happening to black people’s careers in their places of work.

Highly-qualified black people are being denied opportunities solely on the colour of their skin; having their careers stifled because they are not a ‘good fit’; being passed over for promotions or being told “you were a close second”. How do I know this? I am a career coach who often hear from my black clients about their experiences, and I believe them because I have my own personal stories. The emotional tax they are paying in the workplace is equivalent to having a knee on their necks, and it’s suffocating.

Although I have long left the corporate arena, I have experienced having a knee on my neck when a less-qualified white woman who had joined the company as a temp three months prior, was given a job in the corporate affairs office, a position for which I was interviewed. I was with the company for three years at the time. When I asked HR for an explanation, especially when I had had two certificates in public relations and had previously worked in the field, I was told I was ‘a close second’. How could I be a close second when the woman neither had the experience nor the education for the role?

A highly-qualified South Asian woman was also interviewed. We compared notes. She was with the company a bit longer than me, but she said she didn’t want to ruffle feathers. I told her I would speak up about my situation, and if it benefited both of us, so be it.

Another experience when I had the knee of racism on my neck was when a white woman at a well-known non-profit told her staff that they shouldn’t hire me for a workshop because people “won’t show up”. Well, people used to show up when I delivered the workshops for free. Nepotism got the better of her and she chose her friend for that paid opportunity. I am looking at her right now with the smug of perceived superiority on her face, probably still denying black people opportunities in that same space. It was not long after that I was asked by the YMCA in Windsor to deliver a keynote to 400 new immigrants for which I was paid.

Prior to the COVID19 lockdown, I was in a Tim Hortons waiting to be served when I overheard two middle-aged white ladies talking. One told the other that she had applied to work at that same Tim Hortons and the manager told her he would get back to her if he didn’t find a qualified candidate. Her friend asked her if she had heard back. She said “No, but it’s probably because I am white!” I was a bit taken aback but thought to myself, “How the tables have turned!”

As I said in a previous article when I was zoom-bombed during an online workshop in April, when black people tell you about what’s happening to them, don’t be too quick to judge. Believe them. Not only believe them but make a concerted effort to become an ally. A true ally does not keep silent. Begin by authentically reaching out and building relationships.

Let me hasten to add that having a ‘knee on the neck’ in the corporate workspace is not only a black and white issue. This means I am not going to give a pass to other people of colour. It is easy for you to say, “I am not one of them!” because that makes you comfortable, but many of you exhibit the same behaviour. Remember, what lessens one of us, lessens all of us.

It is heartening to see people of all hues protesting because they saw what happened to George Floyd, thanks to a cell phone. That is what fair-minded people do. But it would help if some of those same people would step up and challenge those with a biased mindset, or those who spread misinformation in the workplace. Here are some ways you can help your black coworkers cope when a knee is on their necks:

  • Don’t let fear hold you back. Decide to wade into uncomfortable waters and speak up when you notice inequities at work.
  • Don’t be afraid to rock the boat, because sometimes to steady the ship, you need to rock it.
  • Don’t just invite them to sit at the table (that’s optics); make sure they are contributing to the discourse in meaningful ways (that’s inclusion).
  • Don’t be another Amy Cooper. Use your position of power and privilege to help not hurt.
  • Don’t pass off casual racism or microaggressive  behaviours as jokes. It’s hurtful and insulting.
  • Don’t imply it’s because of quota or lowering of standards when a black person gets a promotion. Check their credentials.
  • Don’t accept the status quo at work; act. Inaction is not only the result of fear, but the cause of fear. 

COVID19 has laid bare the stark realities of institutionalized racism on all fronts, but black people and people of colour can’t do it on our own. When the dust settles, let’s not return to business as usual in the workplace and in our communities. Prepare to get comfortable with being uncomfortable.

The quotes below speak directly to what leaders in the workplace can do:

Minda Harts, author of The Memo: What Women of Color Need to Know to Secure a Seat at the Table said, “…it’s extremely hard to constantly hear your leadership talk about diversity and inclusion and take no real steps toward hiring and retaining diverse talent.”

Darryl White, CEO at Bank of Montreal said in a recent LinkedIn post: “There can only be one response to racism and violence and that’s to deepen our commitment to making change. There is no easy path, we all have very hard work to do.”

It’s time to hold your leadership accountable to what they say they will do. When we do that, racism, bigotry and ‘knee-on-the-neck’ behaviours cannot thrive.

 

Are You Guilty of Unconscious Bias?

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Last Wednesday, serial entrepreneur John Greathouse published a blog post in The Wall Street Journal titled, Why Women in Tech Might Consider Just Using Their Initials Online. He argued that, “…women in today’s tech world should create an online presence that obscures their gender. A gender-neutral persona allows women to access opportunities that might otherwise be closed to them. Once they make an initial connection with a potential employer or investor, such women then have an opportunity to submit their work and experiences for an impartial review.”

Soon after the post was published, readers reacted, including Cathy Belk, founder of JumpStart, who wrote an article in Fortune titled No! Female Entrepreneurs Should Not Have To Hide Their Gender To Get Funding. She explains that “asking women to hide or change who they are doesn’t create equality or drive change. All it does is reinforce the status quo…”.

While Greathouse may have had good intentions, it ended up having unintended consequences. He may have thought that by hiding the fact they are women potential funders would automatically assume these applicants are men. This automatic assumption is known as unconscious bias. To back up his point, he stated that “Many people in the business community are “intellectually dishonest,” and while they preach diversity, they don’t practice it.” But, instead of  going after those he described as intellectually dishonest, he chose an easier path, suggesting that women create an online presence that obscures their gender. That, in itself, is acquiescing to the status quo rather than trying to change it.

Although the Wall Street Journal article focuses on women, there is a job search analogy to be drawn from it. Imagine a job seeker with a non-English name being asked to change it to one more readily acceptable, or suggest that they omit photos from their online presence, or use initials when applying for a job. This happens.

When it comes to bias, no matter how open minded we think we are, we all have it to some degree and by the way, it is not limited to ethnicity or race. It is shaped by our experiences, what other people tell us, media portrayals, etc. While we are mostly aware of conscious bias because it’s explicit, unconscious bias is instinctive; it is unintentional, and something we are not usually aware of. Because of all this, it is important that all of us (businesses, employers and individuals), become more in tuned with our biases before we make automatic assumptions.

In a recent LinkedIn post, Microsoft’s Chief People Officer, Kathleen Hogan wrote, a piece titled Screen In to diversify your workforce. She states, “Screening In reflects our desire to bring in talented people who aren’t carbon copies of existing employees, because building a homogenous workforce isn’t the best way to innovate and problem solve for the increasingly diverse customers we serve.” As well intended as this statement is, the image used in the article did not reflect the diversity of which she touted. Was unconscious bias at play with the choice of that image? Probably, although it does not detract from the message of a company committed to doing things right.

As part of the Screen In approach, all Microsoft employees are required to participate in an annual Unconscious Bias Training. Not only that, but Microsoft is making the training available externally for anyone to experience. Experimenting with the tool might help us learn our own unconscious biases and change our behaviours.

Another area of the job search where unconscious bias often rears its head is in resume reviews. A Fast Company article, How Unconscious Bias Affects Everything We Do,  suggests that before doing so, managers could be asked to respond to a series of questions such as:

  • “Does this person’s resume remind you in any way about yourself?”
  • “Does it remind you of somebody you know? Is that positive or negative?”
  • “Are there things about the resume that particularly impact you? Are they really relevant to the job?”
  • “What assessments have you made already about the person? Are they grounded in solid information or simply your interpretations?”

The Wall Street Journal article might have stirred up the hornet’s nest about gender, but it has also opened up an opportunity to have conversations around our preconceived notions. And, from a job search perspective, these conversations could help to decipher biases and tap into the skills, talents and expertise of everyone.

British Economist, Journalist and former advisor to the World Trade Organization, Philippe Legrain, said “Most innovations nowadays come not from individuals, but from groups of talented people sparking off each other – and foreigners with different ideas, perspectives and experiences add something extra to the mix. If there are 10 people sitting around a table trying to come up with a solution to a problem and they all think alike, then they are no better than one. But if they all think differently and bounce new ideas and reactions off one another, they can solve problems better and faster, as a growing volume of research shows.”

What are your thoughts on unconscious bias? Are you guilty? Take a few minutes to complete the free unconscious bias training offered by Microsoft. I am halfway through it.

7 Traits of Highly Successful Job Seekers [Infographic]

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This infographic highlights seven traits of highly successful job seekers. While not all-inclusive, these individuals:

  1. Are Proactive: Always prepared for the next opportunity.
  2. Exude confidence: Know their value, and articulate it with confidence.
  3. Invest in their careers: Recognize their areas for growth, and are committed to professional development.
  4. Have a circle of influence: A personal board of directors consisting of individuals whose career trajectory they want to emulate.
  5. Are active on social media: Recognize that social media is an equal opportunity platform and does not require a PhD to be a player.
  6. Demonstrate cross-cultural competency: Able to operate in different cultural settings and recognize that diverse talents solve problems faster.

  7. Know how to collaborate in virtual teams: Have well-developed skills to work productively and cooperatively. Team members are not always in the cubicle next door.

Recognize these traits in yourself? If not, it’s time for some introspection. What are your thoughts?

Workplace Lessons from a Pot of Veggies

Diversity in all its SplendourWhile cooking vegetables over slow heat recently, the rich diversity of colours really jumped out at me. I quickly grabbed my cell phone, took a picture and sent it off to my family Whatsapp group made up mostly of my sisters and nieces, although two brothers are in on it as well. Long before Whatsapp was acquired by Facebook, it had been our means of making daily ‘touch base’ contacts with family. One of the things we frequently do is to show off pictures of our meals, and this time it was my turn.

As I looked at the beauty and blends of vegetables in the pot, I thought how boring would the workplace be without diversity – diverse skills, cultures, races, languages, and names? Discussions of diversity are not always comfortable, yet discussions have to take place. Consider a recent ‘uncomfortable’ article in the Toronto Star, The Curse of a Foreign Name, written by an acquaintance, Priya Ramsingh. She addressed the issue of how some people were being rejected for job opportunities because of their ethnic names.

This is a reality. I work with clients from all over the world, most with English-sounding names like Barb Bill, John and Jane, but a good mix of names such as Smita, Giusseppina, Chun, Carlos, Bassam, Ismail and Guylaine. All these individuals, regardless of their names, are accomplished in their fields with PhDs, MBAs and BAs. They have much value to offer employers. But, some with non-English sounding names have wondered out loudly if their names have been or could be a barrier to job search success. One young lady of Chinese descent, asked me recently if she should use her English name when applying for jobs. How narrow minded of the recruiter in Priya’s article, to make assumptions that the candidates didn’t speak English or would be too difficult to understand”, and reject them on that basis?

The topic of ‘names’ hits close to home as my children do not have English-sounding names either. My daughter, whose name is Damali Shimona, used to wonder if her name (pronounced ‘Damalee’), would be, or has been a deterrent to her job search. I haven’t seen evidence of that yet, but one never knows. Regardless, it is a legitimate concern, considering Priya’s article. The good news is that, although these biases still exist, I believe most recruiters and hiring managers are not so elementary in their thinking. They have realized that ‘sameness’ isn’t a good strategy, and are largely helping employers to enhance the range of skills in their workforce thereby making the most of the wealth that diversity brings.

As I reflect on the rich diversity of the vegetables in my pot, I am reminded of an excerpt from a book by British Economist, Journalist and former advisor to the World Trade Organization, Philippe Legrain, where he said “Most innovations nowadays come not from individuals, but from groups of talented people sparking off each other – and foreigners with different ideas, perspectives and experiences add something extra to the mix. If there are 10 people sitting around a table trying to come up with a solution to a problem and they all think alike, then they are no better than one. But if they all think differently and bounce new ideas and reactions off one another, they can solve problems better and faster, as a growing volume of research shows.”

That’s the splendour of diversity! So, whether we have different names, speak different languages, or have different skin tones, when we embrace diversity together, we make the workplace that much richer. My meal wouldn’t have tasted that great if all it had was broccoli or red peppers. As Albus Dumbledore of Harry Potter fame said, “Though we may come from different countries and speak in different tongues, our hearts beat as one.”

What are your thoughts on diversity, or on my vegetable analogy?

The Business Case for Hiring & Retaining Internationally Educated Individuals

On August 17, I was privileged to share the podium with The Hon. Dr. Eric Hoskins, Ontario Minister of Citizenship and Immigration and Dr. Yamil Alonso, Program Coordinator for the Skills Without Borders project at the Brampton Board of Trade.

The event was an outreach to employers sponsored by COSTI Immigrant Services and the Brampton Board of Trade and titled The Business Case for Diversity: Hiring and Retaining Internationally Educated Individuals. Read a summary of my presentation in the latest issue of Career Highlights ezine, then click this link to go to the photo gallery.