Discrimination, it’s still a workplace issue in 2020.
Discrimination is still very real, even in 2020. I’ve learnt that there are segments of the community that are treated either overtly or covertly in a manner that is not appropriate, this permeates the workplace despite organisational policy and public statement. I get this as a company’s values are not representative of an individual’s viewpoint. In a strange way I hope we maintain a separation of values between what our companies tell us to think and how we place moral values within our lives. We are not after all, the company that we work for.
I very recently had a bad interview experience and I wanted to share some thoughts about it as it’s relevant to all the D&I specialists out there. Now before you get excited, I am not going to share any details with you as to who the company might be, not even a hint. Sorry.
Before explaining my thoughts on the subject, I will share a little of my background for some context before explaining the experience and then I will conclude with my thoughts. I hope you are ok with this approach.
To my background. I’ve been working in project change, transformation and program delivery for over 20 years. My work has been international in nature and with some of the best-known organisations in the world. I’ve been lucky. I have a research masters, I’m writing papers for my PhD and I started my career in the military. Oh, I was also born Intersex. I lived as a male for 95% of my life and switched when I was personally able to accept my position. I look different from the average female but that was as a result of years of living as a male. It happens and I’m ok with it. But others aren’t. As I recently learnt.
The bad experience. I went for an interview in London following a very positive phone interview and I was looking forward to meeting the team. When I got there, I found that my first impressions were good. The second interview was just as positive. Both were exactly what I hoped for, polite, professional, respectful and a good example of the companies valued. I had to run a case-study test which I found flawed and missing a lot of data but that’s ok, it’s one of those hoops we have to jump through. I explained that I found it a strange approach and that there were gaps in the case study but that it was ok, I got it.
The idea was to then follow the case study with a review, and this is where things went downhill rapidly. Shockingly quickly in fact. There were two in the room for the ‘chat’ and it was a shock to see the demeanour of one in particular. It was a combination of body language, manner of speech and their dismissive attitude to anything I said. I found I was being looked at up and down constantly. It wasn’t always what was said, it was often how things were said. My experience was questioned despite having worked in the industry for over 20 years, my career was dismissed as mere contracting and not as good as consulting. It was, horrendous. I was made to feel that I was not fit to be in that room with them.
I closed up rapidly as I felt not worthy to be there. The looks, the manner and the dismissive attitude were awful. Frankly, I could not wait to get out of there, but I tried to be professional and see it through. I tried to lighten the mood with a joke about my voice sounding like ‘Barry White with a cold’ as if I were trying to justify my presence and to make them feel comfortable but that failed, and the negative approach continued. Eventually it ended and I got out.
I got outside the building and I cried, I cried quite a lot. I felt humiliated, devalued, like I was not fit, as if my career had been pointless. I spoke to my other half, they tried to reassure me, and I spoke to my closest friend to find some peace. It was a nightmare.
The next day I was so sure that what had happened was wrong that I wrote an email explaining that this was not appropriate and why. I explained that myfeedback was important before any official feedback to ensure that nothing I said could be construed as ‘sour-grapes’. Ten days later I got some feedback. There was no mention of the email at all or how I was made to feel. It was being whitewashed. I get it, if they acknowledged the email then it must be addressed. Needless to say we’re not going to be progressing together and I explained that I needed to see the issues addressed and to allow them to close it after an internal conversation was not going to be acceptable. And this story will go on away from public observation.
After years of living as my true self, having completed a full social and medical transition, I’ve learnt when is approrpiate to react and when I am over reacting. I know the difference between someone reacting to the fact that I am ‘different’ from average and when that reaction is ‘because’ I am different. It’s a subtle but important variation. We stare at what is unusual in our environment because the human instinct of ‘fight or flight’ tells us to. But, how we chose to react to that difference is what matters. My reaction to the interview scenario is, unfortunately, the uncomfortable type. Your HR policies are about not the observation, but the reaction.
So, why an I sharing this you must be thinking?
I’ve opted to share this as I think its important for companies, HR teams, Diversity and Inclusion specialists and line managers, to realise that policy does not always drive behaviour. There is a measurable or observable element behind policy introduction but there is also a more covert aspect to behaviour within an organisation.
Think of the company value ‘we fully respect diversity’ as a statement. It’s a version of a very common statement nowadays. The company will communicate this, share it in awareness and onboarding sessions and often on internal posters. In performance reviews we share this view and we ask that employees follow this value. The employee will agree. After all, it’s hard to measure and we can tick a box through a process and therefore we meet our values. Right? Wrong.
An individual’s views will remain. Over time they may change and adapt by observation and learnings, but they will pretty much remain intact for the foreseeable future. If there are prejudices at play, we all have them, then they will remain. Covertly of course. No one is going to stand up and say, ‘No I will not respect the views of a minority group’, that’s career suicide.
So, if you work in HR, diversity or a similar field, please do not think that your job is done. Policy statements are reflective of an idea, not of actions. Unless you can observe and measure every interaction then you will get infringements of that policy. When that policy is broken you may not even know it. But that doesn’t mean that because you have a policy statement, your job is done.
Be aware that a company hires individuals and their moral viewpoint, biases, and differences will exist. They may not align to yours or that of your company. Instead, find a way to make actions more measurable, observable, more balanced.
Your recruitment process is particularly vulnerable to bias. We all know of multiple reasons why we can say no, why we can put someone to one side. An employee is different, they work for the company if they come up against issued then there is a litigation risk, so your policies are a form of risk management. A candidate, they’re easier to dismiss as the risk is exponentially lower so we have less need to measure and observe. Your policy statements are good enough, aren’t they?