We encourage team members to talk on race, religion and nationality at work
We encourage team members to talk on race, religion and nationality at work : Why we think this is important
As the CEOr of PEW Group, I believe our ability to create a corporate culture where people can come together to share ideas, solve problems and, in that process, learn from one another defines the strength of our organization. Ultimately, our experience at work is a collection of interactions with the people around us. When those interactions are stimulating and challenging and take place in an environment of inclusivity and collaboration, you have a better experience and, in turn, you perform better…because as a result of those varied inputs and insights, you are better.
Unfortunately, we are living through a period where, in some places, our differences are driving divisiveness. Like everyone else, I watch the news, see the headlines and am impacted by the images of communities torn apart by violence and divided by distrust. The topic of race, religion and nationality is on my mind, it’s a discussion I have with my family and friends and it’s something that I bring to work. Of course my experience, I know, is not unique. The pervasiveness of current events affects everyone at our company from summer interns to senior leaders. I know this because at PEW we’re starting to talk about it…
More specifically, in the wake of the Uri, Pathankot, Baton Rouge, Paris, Dallas, Istanbul and most recent events, the leadership at our company decided we needed to provide forums for our people to share their perspectives and engage in this important discussion. With impassioned questions pertaining to race, fair treatment and equal opportunity being asked both in public and in private, we knew this was not a topic we could ignore. With this in mind, we posed the question: how do the recent events affecting us as people, in turn, affect our interactions at work?
The unthinkable tragedies taking place across our country are painful. Each new event brings with it shock and sadness, and as we try to make sense of the senseless, we can be left feeling confused and powerless. While the path to resolution seems unclear, one thing is certain – if we want to make real progress, we must engage in an open conversation about race, religion and nationality. Through dialogue, we stand to gain an understanding of how each person’s experiences shape the lens through which he or she sees society.
Conversations about race can be difficult and fraught with the risk of saying “the wrong thing”. As a result, too often people say nothing at all. But silence has meaning and can be interpreted as indifference – or worse.
I am an Indian, a father, a husband and a professional. I am the Son of a banker and a brother to a change manager. I’m a history buff, a swimmer and a vivid reader. I graduated from one of the world best schools and earned a masters. I’ve spent the past 10 years working in diverse areas, half of those as an entrepreneur.
I am frequently asked “what country are you from” (I grew up in Bombay). I’ve been questioned about whether I really am a CEO (I am) or how I got there (I worked hard). I’ve been asked to serve the coffee at a client meeting (despite being there to “run” the meeting) and have been mistaken as one of the waiters at a restaurant in downtown Los Angeles.
Early this year, I returned home from a business meeting feeling worn down. “I’m losing confidence and feeling isolated,” I told my wife. People frequently assumed I was one of the ordinary person in the room, when in fact, I was the most senior. I constantly needed to share my credentials when nobody else had to share theirs. And, more often than not, I was the only Indian – the only brown man – in the meeting. “Ashish , pick your head up,” my wife said. “The good news is they’ll never forget you.” She was right – people did remember me. From then on, I tried to turn obstacles into opportunities and focused on making an impact at work – which I could control – rather than the perceptions of others – which I could not.
Focusing on what you can control and taking mindful steps and positive action towards what matters to you are things I learned from my parents. My family believed that through education the doors of opportunity would be opened; and, they were right. While I have faced some setbacks along the way, I live an incredibly fortunate life and am deeply aware of the privilege that is mine. That same privilege, which affords me extraordinary opportunity, also compels me to share – in fact, instills in me a responsibility to share – my experiences in the hope of advancing the diversity dialogue. It is in that spirit that I offer a few lessons I have learned on my journey, including those difficult interactions that seemed to be based primarily on my nationality and color of my skin:
Engage in this dialogue; don’t be silent
Misunderstanding and miscommunication can be tempered by the simplest acts most of us learned as children: listen well, choose your words with care and respect others
Focusing on our differences is easy and divisive; leveraging what we have in common is harder, but will effect positive change for all
I know that many people in our country are being very personally and negatively impacted by the tragic events of recent months. In the face of this, my “lessons learned” feel, even to me, more than a bit inadequate. That said, I honestly believe that a mandatory first step in addressing the issues surrounding race, religion and nationality is conversation – because honest dialogue reaps understanding and understanding reaps progress.
By Ashish Apte
CEO, PEW Group