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In private conversations with my minority colleagues, we periodically find ourselves questioning whether diversity is truly valued in the workplace. Does it really have quantifiable value to an employer? How does an employer measure such value? Is the idea of valuing diversity in the workplace simply that — an idea and nothing more? I’ve often wondered whether employers have over-simplified the concept of diversity by assuming that diversity is valued in their organization, so long as their organization hires a sampling of minorities and refrains from engaging in overt discrimination. While this is, admittedly, a step in the right direction, most minority employees would probably agree that it simply does not go far enough. For diversity to be embraced in any meaningful way, employers need to be attuned to the more sophisticated, yet subtle form of discrimination I refer to as “marginalization.” The benefits of eliminating marginalization in the workplace include enhanced employee morale and productivity, as well as lowered attrition rates. However, combating the phenomenon of marginalization first requires understanding it. WHAT IS MARGINALIZATION? To be marginal is to be on the periphery of something, or, to be considered somewhat less in importance, stature, or, worth. Thus, when used in the context of describing discriminatory behavior in the workplace, marginalization is any act, thing, or process that makes minority employees feel less worthy or less significant than their nonminority peers. Marginalization of minority employees persists because: 1) racial stereotypes and perceptions of racial inferiority are ingrained in the fabric of society; and 2) victims of marginalization simply don’t speak up, usually because marginalizing conduct is ordinarily so subtle, it is not viewed as being actionable; nevertheless, anyone who has been the victim of such conduct will tell you that it is just as painful and demoralizing as overt discrimination. Perhaps you’re wondering whether marginalization takes place in your organization. Short of asking the question directly of an affected employee, how do you know what constitutes marginalizing behavior or practices on your part? Set forth below are what I consider to be objective indicia of marginalizing behavior. INDICIA OF MARGINALIZING BEHAVIOR Are your minority employees provided with resources that are at least as good as the resources provided to their nonminority peers? From hardware to software and printers to secretaries, the disparities that exist here are sometimes so subtle, that one might be tempted to chalk it up to oversight or just plain thoughtlessness, but certainly not to discrimination. However, to the extent such disparities exist more so to the disadvantage of minority employees, rather than to their majority peers, marginalization is occurring. On some level, whether conscious or not, the thinking is that the affected employee doesn’t deserve or require the best resources. Are your minority employees receiving an investment in their training and development that is equivalent to that being provided to their non-minority peers? The answer to this question should be fairly clear-cut, as dollars and cents are very concrete metrics. When was the last time you examined or compared the sums spent on employee training and development? How do your minority employees fare in that comparison? Whether they say it or not, your minority employees do notice differences in the investments made in and among your employees. It is very hard for any employee to feel a sense of loyalty and commitment to an employer, when he or she feels that the employer has made no meaningful investment in them. Are your minority employees provided with the same accoutrements as their nonminority peers? Believe it or not, things as simple as office furniture, plants, artwork and the office itself can and do vary among similarly situated employees. Consider whether and how they vary among your own employees. To the extent substandard accoutrements are the mainstay of your minority employees’surroundings, as compared to that of their majority peers, marginalization is occurring. Is there a double standard when it comes to permissible conduct by or t oward your minority employees? Have you ever heard of the old saying, “what’s good for the goose is good for the gander?” Unfortunately, this pithy saying is false in the workplace. While the application of this double standard is commonly associated with the gender divide, it also applies to the racial chasm. Minority employees often find that subordinates simply do not and aren’t expected to behave in the deferential manner exhibited to their nonminority peers, which has the effect of undermining their authority, thus preventing them from effectively performing their responsibilities. Also commonplace is the practice of disciplining minority employees more severely for conduct that would ordinarily result in a warning for a non-minority employee. For example, over the course of my career, I have known (and personally witnessed the conduct of) non-minority lawyers who have managed to hold on to their jobs following a momentary affliction with what seemed like Tourette’s Syndrome. For example, I personally witnessed an attorney scream at his manager, with no consequences whatsoever, because responsibility for a significant project, which during his disability leave had, out of necessity, been assigned to a minority attorney, was not restored to him upon his return. I have also known a minority attorney who was summarily dismissed, while pregnant, for being curt with her manager about the imbalance in their respective workloads — the imbalance resulted from that manager’s well-known, painstakingly slow “working style.” Although her conduct never degenerated to yelling, screaming, slamming doors or uttering profanities, it, for some reason, warranted summary dismissal. Are your minority employees routinely paired with managers who are not key players? An employer that consciously pairs its minority employees with managers whom everyone in the organization views as being too average, too curmudgeonly, or, too boring to promote, but too smart, too loyal or too dependable to fire, does not value diversity. Unfortunately, all too often, minority employees are paired with the personality that no one else can or wants to work with. If you want to avoid the appearance of marginalization, don’t do this to your minority employees — instead, pair them with trailblazers. Are your minority employees routinely assigned to de minimis projects or projects fl avored with minority concerns? This particular type of marginalization limits a minority employee’s sphere of professional experience and forecloses the possibility of stumbling upon other career enhancing opportunities. Assigning such projects to minority employees might be appropriate in certain situations, but a steady diet of such projects is simply not healthy for their long-term professional growth. I’ve known very few minority attorneys who have been able to parlay their law firm experience into a senior management position with an external client, simply because they have been victimized by this type of marginalization. Routinely assigning minority employees to projects flavored with minority concerns also devalues the minority “individual” because it reflects a belief that minority employees are one-dimensional — i.e., he or she is best at or only capable of working on matters that entail minority concerns — a view that is simply untrue. Do you engage in the practice of hiring on a m inority out-minority in basis? This practice devalues the minority “individual” to the extent it is premised on the notion that minority employees are fairly interchangeable, simply because they share the same ethnicity. If you hire minority candidates just to maintain the appearance of having diverse personnel, your understanding of what it means to embrace and value diversity is short-sighted, i.e., it is limited to the presence or absence of personnel who are members of a protected racial class. If, however, you hire minority candidates to replace departing minority candidates because of their skills, talents and abilities, as well as the unique value their ethnic diversity brings to your organization, then your practice of hiring on a minority out-minority in basis is less problematic; however, better still would be the practice of hiring qualified minority candidates for any vacancy, not just those created by an exiting minority employee. While the above described indicia of marginalization are certainly not exhaustive, they do provide a starting point for engaging in an analysis of the way in which diversity is viewed and practiced in your organization. Michelle Lependorf is an attorney and diversity consultant in Princeton, N.J.

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