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When You Are the Minority at Work


It’s the first day of work and you’re meeting with your new team; while it doesn’t immediately strike you at first, you realize soon enough that perhaps you are the only person of color, the only man, the only woman, or the only person of a different faith in the room. It’s not an easy start, but you will be able to make it work. Here are a few ways you can avoid isolation and any preconceived biases toward you and your efforts.

(Photo Credit: OregonDOT/Flickr)

1. Don’t Jump Right In

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You do not know how deep the waters are, so you need to test them first. Do not come to conclusions on the first day. Take some time to observe how your team works. Connect with people on a one-on-one basis and get to know them better. Ask your manager to assign a buddy to help you navigate through the system and understand how things get done here. If that’s not a possibility, take the role of an observer before you start contributing. You are not expected to deliver from day one, so take the time to absorb your environment.

2. Find the Commonality

There’s got to be common ground – if you can’t find it immediately, you are bound to find it sooner or later. For example, a client of mine, who was possibly the oldest in a team of younger architects, saw a Friends sitcom mug on one of her colleagues’ desks. She checked to see if he was also a fan, and they bonded instantly over the characters’ punchlines and running gags. He would soon become her “office guide” and help her settle in.

3. Intent Before Content

Joseph Grenny and David Maxfield, of Crucial Skills, write on LinkedIn about their research on how men and women are perceived differently at work. They concluded that giving a behavior or value frame before sharing views seemed to reduce backlash to a considerable extent.

“State the intent before the content,” they advise.

A behavior frame sets the context to how you are going to state your point of view (“I’m going to express my opinion very directly. I’ll be as specific as possible”), while a value frame brings your guiding value system to the forefront (“I see this as a matter of honesty and integrity, so it’s important for me to be clear about where I stand”). They write that “it turns the emotion into a virtue by turning it into a measure of commitment to a shared value.”

The same principles can be applied in any setting, bringing the audience’s attention to the topic at hand and the intent behind the statement, rather than on the speaker.

4. Separate Your Views From the Perceived Views of Your Minority Group

You may find yourself in situations where you are treated as a representative of your minority group. “How do you think women will react to this product?” “Will the Brazilian market be receptive to this idea?” This is a great opportunity to separate yourself from your perceived identity and into your expertise: “I like this product because it has ABC attributes, however, I cannot speak for all women (or all Brazilians) as my views are not representative of theirs. As a packaging expert however, I think….”

Keep in mind that your intention is to turn their attention toward your domain expertise, your core skill.

5. Work Harder

The initial few months are the toughest for any person, at any job. But if you are a minority, you not only need to break your perceived stereotype, you also need to prove how effective you are at your job. This could mean putting in extra hours, taking on additional projects, building on your skill sets and excelling at projects. Once you establish yourself as a smart worker and are acknowledged for your decisions, you would have proven your work ethic.

6. Approach Situations With Tact

If you do face a situation where you find yourself discriminated against, handle the situation with tact and confidence. Approach your HR department or manager to raise your concern. It’s hard to separate emotions from the problem at hand. If you must, talk to your company’s Employee Assistance Program or a counselor or a trusted adviser for support through the process.

Tell Us What You Think

Have you ever been the minority in a work situation? What were the challenges you faced? Let us know on Twitter, or feel free to share your experience in the comments section below.

Padmaja Ganeshan Singh
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Soumyadeep Ghatak
Soumyadeep Ghatak

everything else is fine but, ” approach your HR Dept” part did not fit well with me.Being a pgdm student specializing in HR, I believe HR professionals have a major role to play in an organisation than just just grievance handling. If grievance handling is to be considered , a joint committee comprising of the ‘minority group’ and the management level. I believe in a VUCA world like ours, we ought change and change fast!.so instead of approaching HR dept.… Read more »

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