August 19, 2022

Career Couch: To Foster Diversity, Paint the Big Picture

Q. You are a member of a minority group and want to become involved in creating a more inclusive and tolerant environment at your company. You would also like those efforts to benefit you professionally. How should you start?

A. Make sure you understand the corporate environment and culture before trying to change it, said Lisa Rubens, chief of staff for diversity and inclusion at Deloitte Consulting in Chicago. It will probably be hard to create diversity initiatives in a company that doesn’t feel they are necessary or beneficial.

Whatever you do — whether starting a task force or organizing multiethnic potluck lunches — the effort should be aimed at helping the business. “If it’s all about making you look good, people will see through that very quickly,” Ms. Rubens said.

There are many ways to become a representative of your minority group as a company employee. One of the most common is to join the company’s diversity advisory board or a group concerned with things like recruiting and advancement, said Laura S. Hertzog, director of diversity and inclusion programs at the School of Industrial and Labor Relations of Cornell University in New York.

If no such group exists — and you feel that your company would benefit if it did — you can take steps to create one, by talking to senior-level people about the insights it could provide. “That will show your ability to take on a leadership role and handle multiple responsibilities,” Ms. Rubens said. “It also shows you are committed to the success of your employer.”

Q. Is it a good idea to get involved with affinity groups — for example, a group representing African-American women or Latino men?

A. Affinity groups can help you personally and professionally as long as the group doesn’t exist solely as a way for members to meet and socialize with one another. Steer yourself toward groups that have executive sponsors and a strategic intent to help the business with issues like recruiting, product development and marketing, said Peter J. Aranda III, chief executive of the Consortium for Graduate Study in Management, which helps universities identify and recruit underrepresented minorities for M.B.A. programs.

“Affinity groups can operate like focus groups,” Mr. Aranda said, “advising the company how to communicate with and market their products to different populations and what mistakes they may be making.”

Many affinity groups have mentorship programs, Mr. Aranda said: “From a minority perspective, you should have mentors, so if you are a Hispanic junior executive and you hope to rise through the ranks, you can talk to someone who has been down that path ahead of you and the obstacles they faced.” Affinity groups also help you understand how you are being perceived by the mainstream organization.

Keep in mind that inclusion is a two-way street. When your group hosts for events, it’s important to invite everyone at the company. “What you need to be careful about with affinity groups is that you aren’t creating segregation by being exclusive,” Mr. Aranda said.

Q. How can involvement in diversity initiatives and groups benefit your career?

A. Volunteering for diversity projects expands your presence and responsibilities within the organization, and gives you a chance to take on leadership roles. “It also gives you the opportunity to spend less structured and more collegial time with senior members of the organization, including those in other departments,” Ms. Hertzog said.

Participating in events and conferences at minority-focused professional associations can benefit you and your company, Ms. Rubens said. “You could recommend to your company that you give a seminar on a topic in your area of expertise,” she said, and invite potential clients who will be at the conference. “That’s taking a network you have access to because of your diversity and using it to help your business and yourself professionally,” she said.

Involvement in diversity programs can also widen your professional network. Ms. Rubens, who is African-American, says she often meets peers and executives from other companies at networking dinners and functions for black women.

Q. Could work on behalf of your minority group be perceived negatively or hurt you professionally in some way?

A. Unfortunately, prejudice still exists in the workplace, even if it’s not as overt as it was 30 or 40 years ago. It is possible that co-workers could view you as having a chip on your shoulder or as trying to leverage your minority status to benefit your career,  Mr. Aranda said. Being as open as possible to questions about your culture, traditions and customs — and consequently creating a feeling of inclusiveness — will hopefully help put those fears to rest, he said. 

It’s also important not to spend so much time on diversity efforts that your job performance suffers. “In the end, you will be judged on how well you did the job you were hired to do,” Ms. Hertzog said, “not on whether or not you started a diversity initiative or an affinity group.”


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