“We Treat Everyone The Same Here”
If that is what you believe or that is the consensus attitude amongst your staff, you are in deep trouble. It is a defensive and naive response to these questions:
- Does this organization value diversity?
- Would you say there is equal treatment towards all employees?
- Is there an openness to different points of view?
- How do you respond to differences between people?
- Some people claim they are treated differently here. What is your perspective?
Every time I hear leaders or staff declare how fantastic the culture is because “we treat everyone the same”, all I hear is nails on a chalkboard. We are human beings and we do not treat everyone the same. Not in our families, not in our peer groups and certainly not in the workplace. We have favorites. We prefer those who are most like us. We gravitate towards reflections of ourselves. This is normal. Our reactions to people who are different in thought, appearance and behavior are more complex and nuanced. But to declare such uniform acceptance and rapport to all types is simply not honest.
I fear that our organizations (and public institutions) are terribly confused when it comes to diversity and inclusion. There is a notion that treating people differently who are outside the norm (gender, ability, color) is unacceptable. But doing a 180 to believe that (even if it was humanly possible) treating everyone the same is not the path forward. Many years ago I learned that “doing the exact opposite is doing exactly the same thing; it’s just the flip side of the same coin”. It’s a lazy, knee jerk response to solving a very complex problem. The situation is unchanged or even more insulting.
What is meant when leaders and staff say “we treat everyone the same” is “we value conformity.” Setting standards for consistent protocols and performance in an organization helps things run smoothly and productively. So conformity can be a good thing. But when it comes to how we interact with each other we see, hear and sense how we are different. That’s normal too. The question is simply “how do we embrace and take advantage of our differences”? It is not an issue of lumping all people into a bland stew of sameness. If that is happening in your organization then you are experiencing a potentially destructive power struggle. There is someone or some group that is setting the standard for who is and who is not acceptable and there is coercion towards conformity.
Those in your organization who are “other” will tell you they are not treated the same as everyone else (sic. white men). Yet those in power, formally or informally, want to demonstrate fairness and inclusion when they claim “same treatment”. Big gap. It is like the recent Pew survey following the Ferguson shooting: white and black respondents see the treatment of blacks differently. More whites than blacks claim that blacks are not treated any differently by the police.
To me, it boils down to this simple perspective. We are all different, even those who are part of our affinity groupings. To assume that we truly know someone or that we share the same ideas or experiences is ill-informed. Especially for people in power or the majority, it is essential to appreciate the differences people bring to the table. Rather than making blanket declarations (“we treat everyone the same”, “no one is mistreated”, “everyone is included and valued”), ask questions. “What do you think we should do?” “What have you done in the past?” “I’ve never worked overseas so I don’t have a frame of reference. What was it like?” “Your life situation is closer to our target audience than mine is. Tell me how this product might be received in your community of origin.”
Cries of sexism, racism, ageism, homophobia etc are born out of naive or defensive remarks made by those in power that nothing unfair is happening to those not in power. How presumptive it is that someone other than our closest loved ones could speak on behalf of our experiences in life or work. Our differences are a huge asset in the workplace. If only organizations could find better ways to open things up rather than shut them down.