By Allison Hiltz
Daryl Dixon was just a child when Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. Unfamiliar with who this man was, never mind what he fought for, Dixon attended the funeral with his family members. That day, after learning about King and his dream for equality and inclusiveness, Dixon, founder of the Diversity Resource Group, left with one question: If someone so liked and revered could be assassinated, what does that mean for the rest of us?
This personal story set the stage for Dixon’s presentation to legislative staff on workforce diversity at the NCSL Legislative Summit held in Los Angeles in August. Dixon encouraged attendees to face the uncomfortable reality that every person, whether purposely or not, harbors stereotypes and unconscious biases. These biases, he argued, go far beyond race, gender and political affiliation, infiltrating nearly every aspect of a person’s identity, including whether or not someone is married, has children or is disabled. Even workers with flex time can be viewed differently by those who do not.
In other words, stereotyping is effortless, but it can also impede productivity and undermine worker confidence. This is, in part, due to the difference between intent and impact.
To highlight this, Dixon told a story from his past, when he was a young black man from Atlanta in the Army. During a basketball game, the team captain, assuming Dixon was a good player, made him his third pick. Unfortunately, Dixon was not a good basketball player and was benched within 30 seconds. Though Dixon was sure the captain was not trying to embarrass or hurt him, his decision to pick him third—based upon stereotypes—left him humiliated.
The question, then, is how to create a workplace that not only values diversity but understands why it’s important and actively works to protect and foster it. First, Dixon argued, is the importance of distinguishing between stereotypes and information. Take the dumb blond stereotype, for example. Chances are, an image of a woman comes to mind. But why don’t you picture a blond man? Though both men and women have blond hair, the stereotype of the dumb blond is distinctly female.
In addition to differentiating between stereotypes and information, it is equally, if not more important, to treat others with respect, Dixon said. This does not mean agreeing with someone—or even liking them, but looking at them through the lens of the qualities appropriate to the task at hand.
If someone holds a different political view but is good at her job, focus on respecting her ability to do her job. This can be harder than it sounds, so it is equally important to be self-aware and understand on what basis judgements are being made, how behavior affects others and to continually adjust personal behaviors to better the workplace.
In other words, diversity is to be celebrated and fostered and requires constant self-reflection and active flexing of the mental muscles of respect, compassion and understanding. It is not a to-do item that can be checked off, nor is it something to be ignored. It requires mutual respect between individuals, as well as leadership and an organizational culture that recognizes the immense benefits of workforce diversity and actively seeks to evolve.
Allison Hiltz is a policy associate with NCSL’s Employment, Labor and Retirement Program.