Working with a team or in an office that doesn’t reflect one’s identity can be isolating, but having coworkers who make everyone feel welcome and included can help. When your peers feel free to express their identities without judgment, they are happier to do the work and play an active part on the team.
While setting the protocols of diversity and inclusion as well as providing a safe environment for workers is a vital responsibility of a company's leadership, here are seven tips from everyday professionals on doing your part, as a coworker, to make your peers feel welcome and included:
1. Pronounce names correctly.
Names are an important part of someone’s identity and often have significance in their culture. The first step to making a coworker feel safe in the workplace is to learn how to pronounce their name correctly, said Nadia Jagessar, a marketing manager. “If one cannot be mindful of something as fundamental as a name, why would I expect them to be mindful of anything else?” she added.
There are few things more dismissive and disrespectful than refusing to learn someone’s name, continuing to pronounce it incorrectly, or asking for a “easier” nickname. Learning the correct pronunciation takes a few seconds at most, and it shows your peers that you are willing to make an effort to get to know them.
2. Don’t homogenize an entire demographic.
Sharing a similar background does not mean that a person's experiences are the same or that they express their identity in the exact same way.
Due to stereotyping and inaccurate representations in the media, some people tend to make assumptions about certain demographics, and they get confused when they meet someone who is completely different than their expectations. This can lead to questions and conversations that are uncomfortable for the individual.
As a best practice, don't make assumptions based on stereotypes and get the know the person. “My identity is my own to express,” said strategy consultant Nicole Michaels. Additionally, don’t assume that people from the same ethnicity or nationality know one another.
3. Don’t expect people to be experts on their demographic.
Another assumption you shouldn’t make about someone based on their identity is that they know anything and everything about their culture and people. Data scientist Divya Badey said doing so unnecessarily puts people on the spot, especially if the person asking questions isn’t doing so in good faith, as has been her experience. “I’m not their encyclopedia on brownness,” she added.
There are several very complex reasons as to why this happens, including those related to colonization or pressures to assimilate into a certain dominant culture. You can ask questions respectfully, but don’t be surprised if you don’t get all the answers. And if you are truly curious, do your own bias-free research via the web, a diversity and inclusion professional, or a professional coach.
4. Host gatherings that don’t center around alcohol.
Some of your coworkers might choose not to drink, whether it be for religious, health or personal reasons. And in many corporate and workplace cultures, events for networking and team connections often revolve around alcohol.
Be mindful of your coworkers who don’t drink or those who choose not to be in a space where alcohol is served, because they may feel excluded. Make sure you plan for events and gatherings where there are alternatives for alcohol or where alcohol isn’t served at all. For example, instead of meeting up at a bar after work, meet up at a cafe. Your non-drinking coworkers will thank you.
5. Accommodate for religious and cultural practices.
Sacred practices and obligations don’t go away when one joins a workplace. Company leaders oftentimes accommodate the needs of their diverse workforce, in this regard, which relieve employee pressure of feeling the need to assimilate.
Software engineer Hooria Harmain, who is Muslim, asked for prayer accommodations, and while she was given a space to pray, she felt that her coworkers didn’t respect it. "The only place provided for me was a closet, so if I’m praying, please don’t stay there and talk on the phone or stare at me or constantly go in and out with your coat,” she said. “It’s not that hard being respectful.”
Also, if you're in charge of providing food for an office event or coordinating a potluck, consider your coworkers’ preferences or restrictions. Additionally, keep in mind that there are holidays outside of those that are mainstream.
It's great to get to know the ones that your coworkers celebrate and coordinate, within your company's protocols and rules, ways to consider everyone's needs.
6. Be open and appreciative of diverse cultures or ways of doing things.
Some norms and experiences are not universal including food, clothing, mannerism and interpersonal relationship-building. Avoid offering comments or judgments that might be deemed as offensive or rude due to not understanding a practice or the way someone interacts with you. A few examples of this are using words like "weird" or pointing out how "different" something is.
An appreciation of one’s culture is always welcome. Just make sure that you are not the reason why your coworker feels "othered." And remember, there is a file line between appreciation and appropriation. Learn the difference.
7. Be genuine and kind.
Show interest and be inclusive for the sake of making your coworker feel safe and comfortable. We should embrace differences and make an effort to understand and learn more about someone’s identity. In doing so, we gain knowledge about ourselves and the world.