A few years ago, when I used to work in real estate finance and development, my colleagues and clients oftentimes thought I was either anorexic or an alcoholic. Because I keep kosher, I have a pretty restrictive diet. In order to be able to meet with anyone, wherever they may want, I would often sit in lunch or dinner meetings and enjoy either a Diet Coke or a Heineken. I would casually sip my drink, acting as if it were normal not to order anything else, while everyone at the table enjoyed the different options on the menu. It is difficult to explain what keeping kosher entails so I didn’t like to voluntarily explain it, and, though people were genuinely interested when they asked about it, the conversation rarely came up. My behavior was often simply chalked up as a personal idiosyncrasy, an eating disorder or a functional dependence disorder.
I made the personal choice to attend lunch and dinner meetings and not to discuss my dietary restrictions, believing that it would allow me to succeed professionally without sacrificing my religious convictions. Though I also now recognize that I allowed false assumptions to be made about me because I did not take the time or effort to correct them. Today I am a bioethicist, and I work with many different people across the country on issues relating to the ethical implications of biotechnology and health care. I am also much more open about my personal religious convictions and practices with the people with whom I work.
Inclusion Goes Two Ways
One reason for my openness is the increasing priority in businesses and organizations to create an environment where people from different backgrounds can work together. Inclusion can only work as a two-way street. If the organization has established policies meant to provide a sense of belonging, yet I do not give any effort to explain what would be needed for me to feel as if I belong, then I cannot blame the organization if I have feelings of exclusion. Of course, some organizations make it easier than others to speak about personal values and choices, but, in general, the trend has become an increasing recognition that a supportive and inclusive environment is not only a good thing but it leads to more productive and satisfied employees.
The second reason I wear both my personal and cultural or religious identity on my sleeve is because I have oftentimes found that inclusion policies and cultural competence training is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it makes us aware that different people may not share the same ideas as to what constitutes social and professional graces. On the other hand, cultural competence training can also heighten prejudices by creating general caricatures of diverse population groups, which may actually hinder any sentiment of inclusivity among colleagues.
The best line I ever got to exemplify this point was when a colleague once told me that I didn’t communicate like a Jew. When I asked what that meant, the person said that she learned how Jews talk through reading a cultural competency book, and my emails came across more White Anglo-Saxon Protestant than Jewish. I could have taken her remark to mean any number of things, but I attributed it more to ignorance than cultural awareness.
For an example that is more damaging to organizational productivity, I was once asked to speak to a number of medical professionals about LGBTQ rights. When I arrived to give my presentation, I immediately could see that it would take a lot to win over my audience. The hurdle was not because of their prejudice against the LGBTQ community. Rather, it was due to their assumptions of my prejudices, given my religious identity. Because the medical professionals had taken cultural competency training that taught them certain general assumptions about religious Jewish communities, they assumed they knew me and my positions before I even opened my mouth. They were therefore surprised at what I said—almost as surprised as I was at their initial pre-judgment.
Taking the Next Step
Diversity and inclusion training is important. Organizations cannot assume that their employees will be aware of the different social, cultural and religious norms of the diverse employees with whom they work. Yet diversity and inclusion training should be careful to make sure that individuals see each other and not simply the “populations” whom diverse employees represent.
One easy way to develop an ethos of inclusion is to promote a culture of curiosity—albeit one that allows people to be as socially curious as they are about technology or productivity. Another way is to have diversity and inclusion training where individuals speak for themselves rather than have D&I officers speak for people in general. To be successful, both of these suggestions demand that the organization and its leadership demonstrates that diversity and inclusion is a priority. Yet, in such a space, people would get to know my real idiosyncrasies rather than attribute incorrect ones to me.