See That Elephant?

Having retired last year, after fifty year career as a professional engineer, I have a lot of time to reflect on my experiences within professional offices.  Most of what I recollect I tend to put a nice pleasant spin on, and I admit using my own distortion field of vision, tuning out a lot of the “bad stuff.”

However, observing the state of this nation presently, particularly “race issues,” I cannot help but interject to the public forum that we, collectively as professionals, need to do a lot better in addressing racial issues.  We need to acknowledge and even highlight in appropriate ways, the racial “baggage” that all of us bring to the workplace.  Right now, from my observations in recent history, “race” is like the elephant in the room that no one wants to see,  nor wants to unveil within groups of diverse ethnicities in general.  Its like there is an unspoken rule about leaving a large part of your humanity at the threshold of the workplace.

The fact is that people of different ethnicities do see their world differently.  There is NO homogeneous workplace “reality” shared by all those present in any situation.  What there is, again from observation, is an indifference (I prefer to think being attributable to sheer ignorance) to the views, values and outlooks of those persons of color, by often majority race (Caucasians) managers.  Managers who are “of color” are often just as “guilty,” as they do not want to “stir things up.”

Over my 50 years of working, as a white man, I have heard countless racist remarks, either overt or oblique, from “respectable” professionals…99.9% by white men.  I will not recite incidents decades ago, but even in my very recent years I perceived numerous racist or biased hints, innuendos or outright “old school” derogatory remarks spoken by white coworkers, out of hearing of black team members.  (This is not to also mention the misogynistic and sexist behavior of otherwise “nice guys.”)

While it is not incumbent on firms and large corporations to directly foster resolution of racial issues that employees bring with them, it is wholly insufficient to only make grand statements on their human resource sites that they comply with the law and discrimination, et cetera, will not be tolerated.  The fact is it is tolerated, and they cannot hide behind the position that relies on individuals to necessarily report every occurrence of racial bias that goes on almost daily in many employment environments.  Usually someone reporting -“snitching” – on others in this regard will themselves be getting a paper showing them the door.

A culture of education, group discussion and expectations should be set by all companies.  Requiring employees to watch an on-line video about discrimination is not culture! When I was a lieutenant  in the USAF around 1970, there were occasional problems that would flare between white airmen and black airmen.  The Air Force came out with a policy and program that used “sensitivity training” methodology.  I don’t know if it did much good, but it at least had sound intent, of improving internal working relations of the mixed fighting force.  So in 2019, why can’t companies do something similar?

When there is a racial tension present in a working group, it definitely creates a situation where people are not maximizing their human potential, and “human capital” is being wasted.  If a black person senses that their white manager is prejudiced, that black person cannot be expected to go “all out” meeting their manager’s goals.  Sure, bonuses for performance can be argued to overcome such dissonances, but I would counter that it doesn’t fully.  White managers and coworkers who are not open and empathetic toward those of color, will never attain the full respect and reciprocity of their black “friends” at work, whether in an office setting as or out in the field and factory.

Let’s stop being blind to the elephant in the room.  If we don’t, we may get stepped on.