Of course this is related to the recent Supreme Court Decision, the media coverage as Bruce Jenner became Caitlyn, and the controversy when she was selected to receive the Arthur Ashe Courage Award at the ESPYs.
I’ve been reflecting on the work I’ve done over the last four decades in terms of the things that were openly talked above then versus now, and things that were kept hidden then compared to today.
In the early 1970s, there were the visible ways that people were different, as well as some less visible, but recognized.
I worked with an engineer — early 50s, very intelligent, hard working, and easy to work with. I asked one day why he’d never gone into management. He said, “How many other Jewish engineers do you see around here? How many in management?” I said, “I can’t think of any.” He said, “There’s your answer,” and walked away. In the 3 years I’d worked with him, he’d never talked about being Jewish. I hadn’t thought about his religious difference until that moment or that this may have been why he’d never been promoted.
Co-workers generally talked about their spouse, their kids, things they did over the weekend. If someone was going through a divorce, others usually knew about it. I don’t recall anyone ever talking about having a child with any kind of special needs. Most organizations didn’t hire people with special needs. I commented in a meeting that we didn’t seem to hire people with disabilities. One of the managers named a few individuals with disabilities. I asked if they had their disability when they were hired. The answer was no.
I was also beginning to notice that these questions made others uncomfortable.
Racial awareness training began in the 1970s as managers became aware of the barriers faced by Blacks. A few managers were comfortable enough to say that new Black engineers just didn’t seem to come onboard as quickly as White engineers.
They were right. Merlin Pope’s research indicated that the average joining up time – defined as contributing $1.00 above one’s cost to the organization — was three times longer for Blacks. He trained a cross-section of Black engineers and White managers to provide in-house expertise. He called them “Consulting Pairs.” In 1983, Pope & Associates was awarded a U.S. Patent for this process. As organizations became increasingly diverse in many ways, our process evolved accordingly.
Those who go through this training open up and share things within this very special/unique group of employees that they would rarely discuss at work. In the 1980s, a female participant shared that her husband had confided that he’d always felt like he was living in a woman’s body. They agreed that he would begin his transition after discussing all of the obvious questions, such as, did this make her a lesbian by default? Their answer was always the same – that they loved each other with all of their hearts, and they’d figure it out one step at a time.
The quality of relationships within these groups is unlike anything most have ever experienced at work. When they are in meetings together or just passing in a hallway, others notice the different way that they interact together. Meetings are different (more inclusive) with just one of them in the room. A new VP joined an organization after their process had been in place for a number of years. There was concern that he would squash the program. After meeting with them for 30 minutes, he said, “If we could recreate half of the energy and enthusiasm in this group throughout the organization, there’s no problem in this company that we couldn’t solve.”
In the 1990s, I worked with a Jewish woman whose last name was such that others didn’t recognize it as a Jewish name. When she and her husband were in social situations and someone told an inappropriate joke about Jews, they didn’t speak up. They didn’t want to make others uncomfortable, or risk that they would stop socializing with them. They chose to hide who they were, in the same way that the only Hispanic VP in a large financial services company never corrected anyone in his company who assumed he was Italian.
Today, organizations are concerned about employee engagement and team performance. Often an incredibly talented group of individuals are struggling to work together effectively. Some say they are dysfunctional. Each time I’ve facilitated “team engagement sessions,” I’m struck by the stressful situations managers are dealing with in their personal lives that they’ve not shared with others at work.
Like being diagnosed with cancer or another serious illness, dealing with a suicidal child, a family member with an addiction, divorce, losing loved ones, or having a parent who can no longer care for themselves.
Employee engagement is impacted by the culture and how “safe” it is for people to “come out” and share anything that they have felt the need to keep secret from others at work.
I used to think that when someone was ‘passing’ as White when they weren’t, Christian when they were Jewish, or Italian when Hispanic that they gave up a little piece of their soul every time it happened.
Stress impacts our health in many ways, as well as individual performance and organizational productivity. When we are “hiding” any part of who we are, it’s not just “our soul” that’s being compromised.
“What is it about your organizational culture that causes people to believe that they have to hide any aspect of who they are or tough personal life challenges? How much energy is spent (wasted) by your employees trying to pretend that everything is great, they’re totally engaged and on top of everything?”