by Kent Johnson, J.D., Senior Corporate Advisor, Religious Freedom & Business Foundation
Part of the blog series, Authenticity & Connection
I’ve shared before that, when my paternal grandparents entered the US through Ellis Island as immigrants in the 1890s, they also entered a covenant with the increasingly diverse people of America.
Here’s the deal: They agreed to work hard and honestly. They would learn the English language and learn baseball, and gradually give up some of their native culture in order to gain the benefits that were promised by US citizenship. The promised benefits included freedom to advance – through hard work and creativity – beyond the social and economic class to which they were born, freedom to worship and live in accordance with their conscience, and in short, freedom to build a new future in the New World. For some immigrants, America kept those promises; for others, it didn’t. The results would impact their descendants.
In this piece I’d like to share some observations from our forbears’ immigration experiences that are relevant to today’s worldwide workplace diversity movement. Most importantly, I’ll provide some recommendations for your workplace.
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the pressure to conform to a particular brand of American culture was fierce. Each new wave of newcomers began as outcasts. The immigrant’s worth and opportunity were determined by the larger society’s perception of his conformity to their norms. The Tenement Museum in New York City provides a poignant window into the treatment of immigrants in America. The exhibits reconstruct powerful and dreadful vignettes of the hard life to which various immigrants were subjected at home and at work. They trace specific family histories for generations after that. It’s fascinating and deeply illuminating for our purposes today.
As I noted earlier, as hard as it was, the trials for European immigrants as a general rule tended to be shorter, less demeaning and less deadly than for other immigrants. Those who didn’t “look European” faced the highest hurdles. Most blacks had not come voluntarily, so there was no covenant for them; and for generations, it was impossible for many to earn a ticket out of the tenement.
These deplorable experiences, as well as the positive experiences of descendants who were able to escape the many constraints, ought to inform our approach to workplace diversity today. As diverse people increasingly enter our workforce, it’s as if they were arriving on Ellis Island, the gateway to a land of opportunity. They enter a covenant with our companies which in some ways is like a covenant of citizenship – to do the work honestly and skillfully, and to relate with us. Our companies are not countries, but my point is that we can do this far better than our forbears did. Here are a few specific thoughts in that vein, as you continue to navigate the increasing diversity of your workforce:
- 1. Clarify the covenant. Right from the start, spell out what are you asking them to be, and do, and not do. In this, make very clear that your company stands for the right of all human beings to be treated with dignity and fairness, as they themselves would like to be treated; that they will remain free to live and speak according to their beliefs, insofar as that right doesn’t actually violate the rights of others; and that your company will seek to foster friendship and even reconciliation across cultures. And of course describe the job requirements and expectations with adequate specificity.
- 2. Think of your diverse employees as immigrants to a new land, the land of your company. Many will start out feeling alone and without support. Go out of your way to be sensitive and welcoming to all; and especially to those who’ve been systematically relegated to the status of outsiders or worse because of their connection with any group, and those who feel they have been subjected to discrimination due to economic or social class, race, disability, religion, sexual orientation, or any other factor. Don’t presume you understand. Actively seek to understand them. Urge your existing employees to empathize.
- 3. Like my grandparents did for later-arriving immigrants, facilitate the formation of support groups of people who can serve as helpers, advocates and bridge-builders. Faith-oriented Employee Resource Groups are a wonderful case in point. Let newcomers know that your company officially welcomes people like them, and welcomes and desires their perspectives, and that you will officially promote such support groups – both for their personal benefit and for the company’s benefit.
- 4. Follow through. It’s not just about the onboarding process. Periodically pulse your employees on how you’re doing in these areas. Enable midcourse adjustments as needed.
This may seem overwhelming to some readers. To a degree, we’re all “aliens and strangers,” fresh off the boat, entering a strange and fast-changing diverse work land. If you have questions on how to accomplish these things – especially if you have questions about navigating religious diversity – contact us at the Religious Freedom and Business Foundation. We can be part of your support group.
Your company can do this well; and the entire world will be a better place because you did.