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5 ways graduates can foster ethnic diversity in the workplace

Jaymes Carr

As an employee, you too can influence ethnic diversity at work. Here are 5 ways you can help create an inclusive workplace.

Whether or not you belong to a minority ethnic group, you’re in a powerful position, even as a graduate, to promote greater ethnic diversity and cultural competence in your workplace. The following strategies can help you to support the creation of an inclusive environment in which fairness is the norm and everybody has an equal opportunity to make meaningful contributions.

Make an effort to educate yourself about ethnic diversity

If you’re unfamiliar with the obstacles to ethnic diversity in contemporary Australian workplaces, consider reading our accessible guide for graduates: you’ll learn why ethnic diversity is important, how it benefits both individuals and organisations, and what the current status of workplace ethnic diversity is. Other helpful resources include the fact sheets published and regularly updated by the Diversity Council of Australia and the Australian Human Rights Commission.

It can also be helpful to learn more about what your employer is doing to promote ethnic and cultural diversity. Do they have a policy for promoting diversity and inclusion? If so, what can you do to supports its goals?

Learn how to have constructive workplace discussions regarding race and ethnicity

One of the best ways to educate yourself and become a more culturally competent employee (and colleague) is to seek out and be open to respectful workplace conversations about different ethnic and cultural experiences.

This can be a daunting prospect: after all, such conversations often touch on sensitive issues, and it’s understandable that you may worry, that, by inadvertently saying something inappropriate, your attempts to have a constructive dialogue could be misconstrued as impolite or even cause offence. You may face other roadblocks too: for example, the belief that there is no ethnic diversity problem, or a sense that it could be unsafe to speak up.

It’s perfectly normal to harbour misgivings about difficult conversations: after all, as a responsible individual, you know that words matter. However, it’s also important to remember that, very often, those same difficult conversations are the most important and potentially transformative ones we can have.

Fortunately, you can access fantastic advice on how to have constructive workplace conversations about tricky topics in the form of a guide (Engaging in Conversations About Gender, Race, and Ethnicity in the Workplace) published by Catalyst, an international organisation dedicated to promoting diversity.

The guide covers topics such as the roadblocks you might face (and how to overcome them), as well as tips on how to make room in such conversations for a variety of different perspectives. (Skip to page twenty-one if you’d like to read their list of conversation ground rules, such as assuming positive intent, demonstrating cultural humility, and more.)  

Take a stand against racism, harassment, or discriminatory practices

Racism, harassment, and discriminatory practices and behaviours have no place in Australian workplaces: not only are they illegal, but they can be tremendously hurtful and damaging to both victims and bystanders.

Sometimes incidents of workplace racism, bullying, or harassment are unambiguous. For example, you may hear racially charged language used to describe an absent colleague, or learn that women in a particular team are seldom promoted, while more recent male recruits are. If you’re unsure though, you can always refer to the Australian Human Rights Commission’s guide to identifying workplace discrimination, harassment and bullying.

By law, all incidents of harassment – no matter how large or small or who is involved – require employers or managers to respond quickly and appropriately. But what about graduates? You too can speak up about racism, and you needn’t do it alone: you can find advice on how best to confront racism, harassment, and discriminatory practices on websites such as Reach Out and ‘Racism. It Stops With Me’.

Acknowledge the complexity of your colleagues

As encouraged in the Catalyst guide above, it’s important, when advocating for workplace diversity, that you adopt a position of cultural humility. Cultural humility requires that we step back and allow others to define their own identity and culture, sharing with us things we might not otherwise learn about their values, beliefs, and behaviors.

The avoidance of assumptions based on factors such as ethnicity, class, gender, age, religion, skin-tone, sexuality, and so on can foster better conversations, and also help to create a workplace in which people feel safe sharing their stories and drawing upon their unique experiences. By acknowledging the complexity of others, you may even discover that your workplace is already more diverse than you thought: that the white male in accounts is also an active member of the LGBTIQ community, or that your Chinese-Australian desk buddy grew up three suburbs away and wishes she could speak better Mandarin.

Remember that it’s your everyday behaviour that counts: not just the annual multicultural food fair (although that’s excellent too)

To be clear: the title above is not meant as a slight against multicultural food fairs, which almost everybody agrees are both excellent and delicious. However, as the authors of the 2018 McKinsey Leading for Change report point out, there is a risk that, by equating cultural diversity with food and festivals, people will be able to deflect responsibility to deal with cultural diversity in a more thoughtful manner. 'Action cannot begin and end with cultural celebration,' they write, because other organisations risk a situation in which 'the work of diversity and inclusion on culture… stalls at awareness-raising, and [doesn’t] extend to more substantive efforts.' This translates into a two-fold message for graduates: there’s no need to avoid cultural celebrations, especially when they involve food. But remember: it’s the day-to-day efforts of creating a more diverse workplace that will ultimately have the greatest effect.