By Katie Kern, COO and Partner
Each and every February, Black History Month serves as a time for us to celebrate and reflect on the huge achievements made by African Americans both yesterday and today. As we observe what is now 43 years of Black Excellence, the importance of fostering consciousness of what makes us culturally different within the workplace remains top of mind for me. .
From my extended time spent in corporate to agency environments, there’s always a common thread and sense of energy (which cannot be ignored) that fills the workplace climate: racial and gender-specific behavioral differences and interactions. Delving even deeper into this notion, there are distinct culture-workplace innuendos often faced when climbing up the leadership rankings.
The truth is that, cultural differences should bring us together, not divide us. Blending cultures within a team takes effort and understanding, but results in a beautiful dynamic.
In celebrating Black History Month beyond February, I encourage teams (spanning creative agencies to corporate environments) to incorporate some perspectives within the workplace that will bring out the beauty (and productivity) of embracing cultural dynamics in the office.
Encourage ethnocultural empathy
Understanding the feelings of others that are ethnically or culturally different from yourself is a much needed practice in the workplace, as it is oftentimes something that goes missed.
In a recent episode of the utterly successful Facebook Watch series, Red Table Talk, hosts trio Jada Pinkett-Smith along with daughter Willow and mother Adrienne unpacks this very subject in a nuanced way – specifically uncovering workplace relationships between women from different cultural backgrounds.
Being joined by other three women from diverse cultural backgrounds, they talk about the importance for women who mostly assume power within a workplace setting to recognize an ally within their work environment, and not being afraid to give up power to other women (from a different cultural background) that may have a better impact on any given work scenario.
Giving up that sort of power requires one to show empathy towards the other individual. Practicing this in the workplace can be beneficial as it evokes a sense of belonging and empowerment among individuals.
Minimize the ‘Only’ experience
Rising in my career as a woman in marketing, I have far too often experienced being an ‘only’ in the room: the only woman in the boardroom, the only woman presenting at a conference, the list goes on and on. But there is even more of a starkness with being the only woman of color, and it’s even very evident I am not the only one experiencing this across workplaces in the U.S.
A recent Women in the Workplace report revealed almost 20 percent of women across the board identify as an Only on the job. This number spikes to 45 percent for women of color. What’s even more damaging about the Only experience is that it’s linked with an even worse experience in the workplace, as those who fall into this category are more likely to encounter microaggressions in their professional settings.
To help break this cycle, I encourage those in leadership roles to hire and promote those of minority backgrounds. This will fuel a different mindset and at some point, extinct the ‘Only’ experience from workplaces.
But I’m a nice person
I mentioned microaggressions earlier, and it’s worth unpacking as it’s something very common in the workplace.
A microaggression can take on many forms – from a person (particularly falling in the minority group) needing to further validate their level of competency, to being addressed in a way that lacks professionalism.
As a woman of color in a leadership role, I am constantly faced with microaggressions – and I am a firm believer in addressing this type of toxic behavior head on.
More often than not, those in the workplace who participate in microaggressive behavior have no idea they are doing so. This is why it’s so important to acknowledge when these instances occur. In addressing this, it’s critical for those part of microaggressive behavior to realize it’s not about ‘being nice’ in the workplace; being a nice person is just not enough. It goes back to truly having the desire to understand someone’s culture, and what they are constantly faced with time and time again. Empathy is key to eliminating microaggressions in the work environment altogether.
While Black History Month always gives us a time to reflect and celebrate on the achievements African Americans have made in our society, this also presents an opportunity to inspire action and change beyond February. In the workplace particularly, developing an organization that embraces cultural differences should be a best practice to live and breathe among teams.
Putting it all in perspective, the one thing we all have in common is being human. Being human is about looking beyond our comfort zones, discovering the beauty of other cultural differences and eventually, ending the workplace divide constantly faced among minorities.