What barriers do our fellow South Africans encounter in the workplace? - [website] Email Print
Published: 10th of Sep 2018 by: Carolyn Kessler

I’m asking this question because I had cause to speak with a few HR managers recently. We analysed a couple of scenario’s regarding the issues which rear their ugly heads when integrating people of colour, different economic status, gender and so on into the workplace.

Now I know this is a controversial topic from a racial/ethnicity/gender point of view. A subject on which most people have an opinion. And I fully understand why. When we encounter a shortage of resources – for example jobs – a polarisation takes place. It’s very difficult to remain objective and fair when we stand to lose our already threatened share of what appears to be an ever shrinking pie.

So what are we likely to do? In my experience, we circle the wagons and hunker down in an effort to keep the ‘intruder’ out. Unfortunately this is an inherent behaviour which often springs from unconscious bias. And there’s our problem right there – it’s unconscious! That means we don’t have control over it simply because we’re not consciously aware it exists.

So let’s get real. Every one of us carries unconscious bias around any issue which could be deemed to affect us. No matter how inconsequential. We are wired to recognise and file forever, anything which even hints at having an impact – good or bad – on our personal worlds.

There are many times where this intuitive ability to recognise danger and take evasive action is absolutely imperative.

On the flip side though, there are many times when it’s purely our interpretation of a situation. We’ve judged it through our unique lens of experience and we are just plain wrong! But if we don’t know what’s driving negative behaviour patterns, how on earth can we alter our responses?

Interestingly, I find people are very aware of prejudices which arise from the big three: ethnicity, gender and religion.

But there are far more subtle biases which inform our actions such as: economic status, language, accent, level of education, appearance and so on. These ones often lurk below the surface. In fact, usually, it’s only when we are some way into a . Diversity Workshop that we find the delegates starting to recognise they could potentially be acting out of one or more of these.

A scenario was raised by one of the HR people during our discussion around the issue of BEE and diversity in general. It centred around the fact that one of his client companies had had an intern who had a string of professional qualifications, but had grown up in a very disadvantaged home. This employee, despite her highly relevant tertiary education, wasn’t seen as someone to whom a full time position would be offered because she simply didn’t ‘fit in’.

He had probed the ‘fit in’ label and the biggest stumbling block this lady was facing was her lack of confidence in a corporate environment. She was overly polite. Overly accommodating. In fact she felt more comfortable mixing with the coloured admin staff rather than the team of highly educated interns on her ‘level’. (Maybe because the admin staff were more real and less judgemental?)
There was a very real possibility that this would render her ‘not our image’ and her contribution would be lost to the company when her contract didn’t materialise.

She was well groomed, highly intelligent and had had the emotional intelligence and true grit to put herself through varsity, whilst helping to support her mother and siblings. And now, the fact that she didn’t appear to be blending effortlessly into their somewhat rigid, stylised environment, she stood to lose a plum position. And yes, our version of what constitutes the corporate look can be extremely unforgiving of even the most innocuous ‘flaws’.

Her natural charm, ability to listen and learn and quiet reserve, should have been marked as bonuses; the HR manager had witnessed first-hand her eagerness to grow, teachability and remarkably good problem solving skills. All major pluses. But she hadn’t attended a private school, wasn’t connected etc. and the company in question was worried she wouldn’t project the right image to their clients.

I’ve been mulling over this and still haven’t wrapped my head around the solution to be honest. I’ve had much the same issue borne out with one of my friend’s friends who was a ‘black’ accountancy graduate. He moved into the job market soon after ’94 when companies were desperate to take on ‘black’ graduates and was snapped up by one of the big banks.

When my friend checked in with him a few years later, fully expecting to hear he was running the bank by now, (he had graduated at the top of his class at UCT), she was dismayed to find this wasn’t so. In fact he was feeling really demoralised because, he said, he realised they had only hired him for the colour of his skin. No one believed he actually had the skills to do the job. He went on to say that when he and a white colleague were speaking with an investment banking client, the client would always seek confirmation from Simphiwe’s colleague. Despite the fact that he or she was younger and had less experience!
This can also happen when a man and a woman are working with a client – oftentimes the client will defer to the man as it is assumed he has more knowledge or understanding.

There are many such stories, and my heart aches for those who are being made to feel less than their fellow employees just because they may not tick all the boxes. But mostly, my heart aches for those people out there who mean well, but are victims of unconscious bias. It’s a killer – don’t let it run your life anymore!


If you are interested in joining our Diversity workshop, email us at info@StaffTraining.co.za for more info or give us a call at 0861 996 660






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