Ask the White Guy: My Managers Are 95% White, Christian–Do I Have a Chance?

What can a person do if they're in a company where the in-crowd goes to a certain church?

What can a person do if they're in a company where the in-crowd goes to a certain church?


Question:

At the company my husband works for, he was told in less-than-explicit terms that although he is great at people management, unless he has a mentor who will stick by him, he should forget about growing in that role. If he does want to grow in the company and not stagnate, he should consider a technical track. Full disclosure: We are Indian Hindus. After doing some analysis, we noticed that 95 percent of people managers at my husband's company are white and Christian and go to the same church. The couple of Indians who were people leads were told they were not doing a good job and that they would be better off on the technical ladder, then they were pushed aside.

My question is: How do you grow in a company that encourages this religious casteism and racism? And how do you deal with a situation where you really do want to manage people and are great at it but will not be given the opportunity to do so?

Answer:

I feel that culture within companies changes from the inside. There are examples of companies that change due to market pressure, but this is rare. Most companies go out of business rather than upset the status quo. Change almost always occurs when inspired leadership either overhauls the governance policies or enforces policies that are already in place.

Your situation is difficult­—you're not the CEO, so you're stuck with trying to change the culture of the organization using the governance policies that exist. Is this possible? Here are some things you should evaluate, as if for a report card:

1. Does your CEO have a quote about diversity on your company's website? If so, does it read as heartfelt? Or do you think it came from the public-relations department?

2. Is his/her picture in that area? Does it look like the business part of the website (serious), or is it full of pictures of multiracial hands clasping, flowers and different-looking shoes (what I call diversity clichés).

3. Are there pictures of the board and senior executives? Are they scowling? Do their bios reflect community engagement and charitable work? Or do they look like the kind of people you'd avoid if you saw them coming? A lack of diversity among board members is typical but should be balanced by a statement of intention on diversity (see below points).

4. Is there a diversity council? Does it have significant representation of race, gender and position? How often does it meet? Does the CEO chair the diversity council?

5. Does your company have resource groups? Does your particular resource group have an executive sponsor? A business plan? Report-outs on the business plan?

6. Does your company have structured, disciplined and measured mentoring? Do you have a mentor?

7. Is your company philanthropic? Where does it disburse its charitable spend? What is the percent of gross revenue spent on philanthropy? (The DiversityInc Top 50 companies average 1.6 percent. DiversityInc itself donates more than 2 percent.) Does the charitable area of your company's website cite hard facts and figures—or is it stale and/or full of public-relations gimmicks such as meaningless statistics, e.g., "Charitable donations rose 500 percent from 2002 to 2006"? (That could mean from $1 to $5.)

8. Is there a mission-and-values statement on your company's website? Does it include diversity?

If you feel you can score your company positively on more than six out of the eight questions, I'd say you have a chance of inspiring change. The best way to inspire change is to leverage existing structure (diversity council, resource groups, mentoring, etc.) and to communicate in a style that is consistent with how your company expresses its most important financial information (i.e., use the same font and the same colors).

If your company has a mission-and-values statement, make sure you organize your information along the same lines. Use the same order of reasoning in your bullet points if you can. For example, here's an area on Wells Fargo's website where the CEO lays out the company's mission and values. Page through the entire section. You can see how diversity is listed as one of the company's core values—and there is an excellent explanation of what diversity means to Wells Fargo (No. 33 in the DiversityInc Top 50). There isn't another company I've seen that lists its mission and values so clearly. We just had a senior executive from the company, Michelle Lee, executive vice president and Northeast region president, talk at our diversity event, and she told us that the company's mission and values are a part of practically EVERY meeting.

I understand that most companies don't have as clear a path as Wells Fargo, but you should look very carefully at what's on a company's website. As Maya Angelou said, "The first time someone shows you who they are, believe them." Your company's web site is a window into the leadership's mind and heart. If there's not much there, well, you may be working for mediocre people—and/or people who simply don't see how strangling human capital by having unequal recruitment and talent development doesn't translate to increased human-capital costs, lower brand equity with customers and squashed innovation.

I cannot say if the manager who gave you that reprehensible advice is following company policy or is just a rogue manager. Rogue managers doing bad things can happen at any company; a very smart governmental-relations pro at a company I enjoy visiting once asked me if I thought that it would be fair to say that 2 percent of any population would do something intentionally wrong that day. I thought the number was conservative. He responded that his company had more than 200,000 employees—which means that THOUSANDS of people at his company would do something intentionally wrong.

After all this introspection and investigation, if you feel that your entreaty will be positively received—and not damage your employment situation if you can't afford that—my advice is to leverage the existing structures of feedback and take your change proposition through the chain of command. In my opinion, good organizations and leaders with a healthy sense of ego respond quickly to evidence that there are situations or actions that violate the stated mission and values of the company. They know that dissonance between values and actions destroys credibility, and that process destroys business because it psychologically detaches people from the satisfaction they derive from their daily work and detaches customers from their brand. Just look at what's happened to Apple's stock (down almost 10 percent) since workers at the Foxconn factory started rioting again. Now, there are plenty of things that go into a stock price, but over time, perception of the brand is key. I don't feel the same way about my Apple products since learning about the abuse of workers at their assembly factories. It's completely in conflict with their brand image.

I'm sure you know that your path won't be easy. You will find people blocking your way—many times, petty people block good ideas because they're not going to get credit for them. In my opinion, the cc field in an email is a little-used but very powerful management tactic.

If you don't think an appeal to better business practices will find a happy reception, you have three choices: Stay and make the best of it, start looking for a new job—or start interviewing lawyers.

If you investigate legal redress, you're going to need a very good lawyer, and a class-action suit is far better than going it alone. But keep in mind that settlements usually do not amount to much after attorneys are paid. So your best course of action really is to change things from the inside, if your company passes my report card, or to find another job and recruit all your friends to the new company.

Luke Visconti's Ask the White Guy column is a top draw on DiversityInc.com. Visconti, the founder and CEO of DiversityInc, is a nationally recognized leader in diversity management. In his column, readers who ask tough questions about race/culture, religion, gender, sexual orientation, disability and age can expect smart, direct and disarmingly frank answers.

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