5 Ways to Advocate Successfully for Diversity and Inclusion in a Hostile Work Environment

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Carmen Van Kerckhove, president of workplace diversity education firm New Demographic (http://www.newdemographic.com), shares five ways to advocate successfully for diversity and inclusion in a hostile work environment

While most organizations today at least pay lip service to the importance of diversity, some remain openly hostile to the idea. For progressive-minded professionals who want to eradicate racial inequity in workplaces like these, the task can seem overwhelming.

In the latest issue of her email newsletter Diversity Career Success, workplace diversity expert Carmen Van Kerckhove answers a question from a reader who works at a dental school where members of the faculty and administration regularly exhibit offensive (and even illegally discriminatory) behavior when they communicate with patients of color, setting a terrible example for their students. There is also rampant racial inequity in the workplace, with people of color almost exclusively in support roles.

Van Kerckhove, president of workplace diversity education firm New Demographic (http://www.newdemographic.com), responds, "Although I'm not a big fan of threatening anyone into compliance, in this case a response to consider is to state the obvious: 'If this school doesn't wise up, it's going to get sued at some point, probably sooner rather than later.' Since the discrimination at the school is obvious and no one is even pretending to care about diversity, it doesn't sound like the people in charge will respond sensibly to a gentler approach."

Here are five suggestions from Van Kerckhove to advocate successfully for diversity and inclusion in a hostile work environment like this.

1. Build a case for how the school is doing itself a disservice in failing to equip its students with the necessary diversity knowledge.

It's quite likely that one of the school's main goals is to train successful dentists who achieve profitable practices.

If so, make this case: Dentists who display racist tendencies among patients and employees of color will fail in a nation that is quickly changing from a white majority to a majority of people of color.

2. Find out what state laws exist regarding discrimination against patients and employees.

Research the matter carefully. Offer facts. Then, show that students are inadvertently learning how to break the laws, against their own professional self-interests.

Consider creating a cheat sheet to help faculty and students remember what's legal and what's not. For example, under what circumstances can a dentist refuse treatment to a patient? Is the dentist obligated to provide a translator for patients who don't speak English?

3. Find out about racial discrimination lawsuits brought by patients against dentists.

Try to gather some numbers about what the penalties have been. Share the alarming settlement figures with school administrators. If lawsuits in the dental field seem too scarce to make the case, include lawsuits from the medical field. Either way, the powers-that-be will get the message, loud and clear.

4. Research the changing demographics of dental patients in the state and nationwide.

Not all graduates will remain local; many will accept positions in other states. Prove that demographics are changing rapidly, and that if the dentists and dental technicians at the school want successful practices, they will need to treat everyone who comes in the door with respect. To pass the "smell test," graduates will need a basic understanding of how to avoid discriminating and mistreating clients and employees of color.

5. Organize seminars to equip students with the diversity knowledge they need to have successful careers.

Instead of positioning the workshops as traditional "diversity training," approach it from a professional development perspective. If possible, partner with the school's office of career services. After all, if students want to build profitable, sustainable dental practices, they will have to learn how to work successfully with patients and employees of color.

When naming the workshops, emphasize how diversity knowledge helps future dentists build thriving businesses and make more money: "Save on Malpractice Insurance: Know Patient Discrimination Laws," and "Boost Your Bottom Line: Attract and Retain a Diverse Patient and Employee Base" are just two ideas for titles.

Consider bringing in guest speakers who can speak to these topics, like a dentist who has a thriving multi-racial practice or a lawyer who specializes in patient discrimination cases and can discuss legal landmines to avoid.

The best strategy to take is to demonstrate how the school is doing itself a disservice in failing to equip its students with the proper diversity knowledge they'll need to set up thriving practices of their own in a changing world.

Enlightened self-interest is always a remarkably potent ace in the hole when the odds are stacked against you in a matter of this nature.

Carmen Van Kerckhove, president of the diversity education firm New Demographic, specializes in working with corporations to facilitate relaxed, authentic, and productive conversations about race. She has appeared on CNN, MSNBC, and has visited as a guest lecturer at Harvard, Princeton, Columbia, and many other colleges and universities across the country.

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