Racism And Harassment: How My Own Experience Has Shaped How I Lead At Work.
The week’s spotlight on racism and violence in the United States has rightfully stirred up feelings of frustration, sadness and anger across the globe. While I can’t speak on behalf of black Americans, I can speak to my experience as an Asian growing up in Australia, as well as an Asian who is scared of being targeted as a result of the Coronavirus pandemic.
As a business owner, I don’t wish trauma upon anyone. However, I do believe that those who know hardship and prejudice make for empathetic and resilient managers. This article explains how my personal experience has influenced some ways I approach leadership at work.
My earliest memory of racism
As a young child, I distinctly remember being in the car with my mum when a frenzied Caucasian driver furiously followed us into a parking lot. He was shouting obscenities accompanied by the phrase:
“Go back to where you came from!”
I was shocked and afraid. Thankfully, the man didn’t get out of the car. Mum appeared shaken but didn’t say anything. She continued driving us home.
That was my first encounter with racism — a very hurtful introduction to how people can use differences as an excuse for inappropriate behaviour.
Taking this into adulthood
Growing up, I was appalled to learn about racism at home (how white people treated Indigenous Australians) as well as around the world. Over the years, I’ve endured and overheard unkind comments in places from the schoolyard to the supermarket — sometimes in jest, sometimes not.
The blessing in disguise is that my lived experience with harassment has equipped me to be a better boss. I now have a lens for humanity that helps me foster an inclusive workplace.
Using this lens to mitigate assumptions
Throughout my life, I’ve had many assumptions thrown at me because of the way I look and how I live my life:
- I was born Chinese. This doesn’t mean I speak Mandarin — I spoke English at home.
- I went to a private school. This doesn’t mean I was rich — my parents worked hard.
- I started my business at 25. This doesn’t mean I was fierce — I couldn’t get a job.
In the same way that assumptions towards me aren’t always correct, I try to apply the same lens when dealing with others.
Whether I’m networking, recruiting, managing or collaborating, I do my best to leave any biases at the door. When a client is grouchy or an employee is underperforming, I consider they must have having a hard time at home, rather than jumping to conclusions. You never know what’s going on in their world. Take a moment to think before you label them inconsiderate, incompetent, or a jerk.
How judgement can limit ourselves and others
The stories we tell ourselves can have a big impact on how we work.
- Positive phrases like “success story” can lead to a sense of empowerment.
- Negative phrases like “overwhelmed” or “stakeholders are the worst” can bring you down and pigeonhole others.
One of my favorite TED talks is The danger of a single story by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.
“I come from a conventional, middle-class Nigerian family… And so, we had live-in domestic help… The year I turned eight, we got a new house boy. His name was Fide. The only thing my mother told us about him was that his family was very poor.
One Saturday, we went to his village to visit, and his mother showed us a beautifully patterned basket that his brother had made. I was startled. It had not occurred to me that anybody in his family could actually make something. All I had heard about them was how poor they were, so that it had become impossible for me to see them as anything else but poor. Their poverty was my single story of them.”
The sentiment behind Chimamanda’s presentation captures how I think good leaders act morally in the workplace. They never assume someone’s potential based on resume, race, relationship status, or whatever else — they accept and nurture with an open mind.
Setting a social contract for your business
Reflecting on this topic, I’d like to reference an article by one of my peers and role models, Marty Drill, Social contracts: Working out how to work together. He believes creating a social contract at work keeps people accountable for playing fair, respecting each other, and displaying only the utmost level of professionalism.
‘Social contracts set the ground rules on what is acceptable or expected behaviour, making it safe for everyone to participate. Essentially the agreement creates the norms of what is expected, in the specific context of that team. This creates psychological safety which can be defined as “being able to show and employ one’s self without fear of negative consequences of self-image, status or career” (Wikipedia — Kahn 1990, p. 708).’
Here are some of my favorite one-liners from the social contract Marty’s team put together:
- Talk in the office as though your Mum is listening
- Treat people as though they are important to you
- Treat the office, meeting rooms and equipment as though you paid for them
- Listen to people and maybe they will listen to you
- Approach time zones as though you were the one who had to get up early or stay late
- Imagine you were the one who had to learn a language to work here
- Remember, we are all mentors and we are all students
- Be excellent to each other
Every business should have something like this in place. It doesn’t have to be like the above. You could do what I do at Avion and co-create a set of values that your team abides by. Alternatively, your rules could take the form of a workplace harassment policy.
Co-creating a set of values — and living by them
Similar to a social contract, a set of values underpins what your staff should strive for at work every day. At Avion, our 5 values are: integrity, compassion, positivity, making a difference and creativity.
What’s important to note is that the Avion team created and agreed upon these as a group. By bringing everyone together, you provide a safe space for employees to talk about what’s okay and what’s not okay with each other.
If your company values could do with a refresh, this is what I recommend you do:
- Set aside a half-day for everyone in your team to go offsite. When we’re not in lockdown, I prefer booking a private section in a cafe or a meeting room in a separate co-working space. The change of scenery energizes people and helps them shake off any fear of judgement associated with their typical work environment.
- Give everyone in your team several post-it notes and get them to write down 5–10 attributes that are most important to them at work. Don’t rush the exercise — give them least 10 minutes to do so. Once finished, ask them to stick their post-it notes up on a wall or boardroom table.
- When you can see all post-it notes in full view, start categorizing them. Patterns showing what’s most important to your team will emerge. You can then use these categories to define your company values. Facilitate open conversation as you divvy up the notes — it’s a great opportunity to get to the heart of what matters.
- Agree on your company values! You can choose 3, 5, 10 — whatever suits you. The work doesn’t end there, however. You want to back it up. Break team members into groups and ask them to brainstorm how your company can demonstrate commitment to your new values. If they can’t identify something your business is already doing, develop new initiatives that prove you care.
Creating a workplace harassment policy
Coincidentally, I attended a training session on communicating with survivors of sexual maltreatment last week. Such skills are important for us at Avion as we write content for many clients in the health and wellbeing space.
The brains behind this program, called Isabel and The Runaway Train, is Austin local Anna Westbrook. She is an incredible resource and shared with me this open-source anti-harassment policy template below. It’s super helpful for time-poor small business owners who don’t already have such a policy in place. Just copy, paste and customize with your own details— voila, done.
Please note this is just the short version. A longer, more detailed version is available for you to use at the Geek Feminism Wiki page.
COMMUNITY NAME is dedicated to providing a harassment-free experience for everyone, regardless of gender, gender identity and expression, sexual orientation, disability, physical appearance, body size, age, race, or religion. We do not tolerate harassment of participants in any form.
This code of conduct applies to all COMMUNITY NAME spaces, including [list, e.g. “our mailing lists and IRC channel”], both online and off. Anyone who violates this code of conduct may be sanctioned or expelled from these spaces at the discretion of the RESPONSE TEAM.
Some COMMUNITY NAME spaces may have additional rules in place, which will be made clearly available to participants. Participants are responsible for knowing and abiding by these rules.
Addressing conflict at work
Of course, there’s no silver bullet. No matter how much effort you put into mitigating conflict, incidents can still happen. Furthermore, leaders must be very mindful when a victim and the accused are co-workers within same community.
Lisa Blanton is the President of the Austin Human Resource Management Association (AHRMA). From running her own businesses for more than 16 years, combined with experience from several corporate executive roles, Lisa has a lot of insight to offer. Ultimately, she says:
“If you are a leader, you must remember that the words you speak are important. That what you do, your behavior, is even more important. But, what employees will remember for the rest of their lives is how THEY felt in your presence.”
Situations can be so complex; I encourage business owners to step up and do the right thing. Seek professional advice from an HR expert. Call out inappropriate behaviour out as quickly as you can — then do something about it in a way that’s mature and minimizes stress across your team.
About the author: Natalie Khoo built her business in Australia off the back of the 2008 recession. Having made all the mistakes since day one, she’s passionate about sharing her learnings with other business owners on a similar journey. Natalie’s career highlights include taking a 3-month scuba diving vacation in 2019 and not checking her emails once. She travels between Melbourne, Australia, and Austin, Texas, with her partner James.