How to not feel like an outsider at work

You look around the workplace, and it's clear that you don't look like most of the other people there - especially not those in charge. Maybe you're black, Asian, Latino, a woman, or disabled.

How can you succeed in a job where you're an "outsider," someone who's not part of the dominant culture?

In their book, "From the Outside In," management specialists Sandra Slipp and Renee Blank, along with co-author Vincent Ford, outline success strategies for employees outside the cultural mainstream of their workplace. The Monitor recently spoke with Ms. Slipp about major themes raised in the book.

What are main challenges faced by people who are not part of the dominant work culture?

The main challenge is that their talents aren't recognized, often because of stereotypic thinking. An Asian-American may not be seen as a good manager, because Asian-Americans are too quiet and don't know how to supervise people.

For women, it's, 'Well, she's good, but she has children, so she won't want to travel,' or 'She's too emotional.' And study after study has shown that these stereotypes are very deep-seated. Well, for some women it's a priority to stay home with their children, but for some women it isn't. There are cultural tendencies in different groups, but not everyone falls into it.

The other [challenge] is not feeling comfortable. You go into meetings and the men will be chatting with each other, talking about sports or fishing trips. They won't include the others in the conversation. We say, OK, ... but the burden is on you to try to get yourself included.

The first strategy is you have to check your baggage. If you're an outsider, you've probably experienced discrimination and stereotyping, so you expect to run into it. But our point is, it's not always there. You have to get past your previous experiences and expect positive ones.

Could you explain the "victim phenomenon," which you discuss in your book as an obstacle to success?

The victim phenomenon is when you blame others for the fact that you're not getting ahead.

Many people feel that [their] work should speak for itself, and it doesn't. Yes, we assume you're competent and you're able to do your job well. But someone has to know about it besides your immediate boss. You have to learn to blow your own horn, have to have people in the organization who want you to succeed.

If you're a woman, an Asian-American, or a member of any outsider group, you ... may not want to take the initiative to be included in going out to lunch with someone. But you have to ... force yourself, you have to tolerate discomfort, you have to just say, I'm going to take the first step because I want to get ahead.

There was an example of that in your book: An African-American man felt he was excluded by his white male colleagues from their socializing. So he put some golf magazines and a golf trophy out on his desk where they could see them. And these white men began including him. What was he doing?

Putting those things out was a way to start conversations. He just wanted to show something he had in common with the other men. Because sometimes it's hard for people to get beyond the race issue. They're uncomfortable. You, as the outsider, have to make the other person feel comfortable with you. It's your responsibility.

Maybe people haven't worked with someone who's black before, or Hispanic, or Asian, they don't know what to expect. You have to help.

So, an outsider might have to consider that his or her behavior could be making others in the workplace as uncomfortable as the workplace makes them feel?

Yes, that's right. It's hard to accept differences, and it's hard to change your behavior. Let's say you're Hispanic and you want to speak Spanish to anyone who's Spanish-speaking in your workplace. Well, that may make other people feel excluded. They may think that you're talking about them.

What's the answer? This is a very big issue. Managers should know they can't forbid someone to speak Spanish, but when it's not essential, that person may have to make an effort to speak in English so that others feel comfortable around them. It's mutual.

What's the first step to take if you're trying to succeed or be recognized in a workplace where you are not a member of the dominant group?

Well, there's a couple of things. One is, you should develop some relationships with people and ask them for advice. Say, 'Look, I don't seem to be getting ahead. What's the problem, What should I do?' That can be with members of your own group, or maybe there's someone that has shown some interest in you.

You [also] have to learn to speak up at meetings, be one of the first to throw ideas out. Probably no one is going to say to you, 'What do you think?' So get in fast, make sure you speak up and your ideas are known, and if somebody then takes your idea, you can speak up and say 'I'm glad you agree with what I said earlier.' Meetings are a very important way to get known.

Are things getting any better for the people you call outsiders?

I think so.

One [reason] is that companies want to appeal to a diverse customer base. All companies who are supplying something want to appeal to African-Americans, to Asian-Americans, to Latinos, to women.

Second is getting the best talent, regardless of age, sex, or whatever. It's get the best talent, then keep the best talent. If you don't have a workplace where employees feel comfortable, they're going to leave. More and more, companies are seeing [diversity] as a bottom-line imperative.

This is a very good time now. I've been in the field for 20 years, and I see the change. The change is that it used to be just all legal action, and now it's seeing that inclusiveness and recruiting are helpful to the company's bottom line.

That's a new shift. That it's good for us, as opposed to, Oh, it's the government making us do it.

Our book says, this is your time now, for the outsider. There's a recognition that diversity is good, for the markets, for globalization, for getting the best talent. This is your time now, grab it.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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