To Tell or Not to Tell

Most people want to fit in, to belong, to be part of a group, to be "one of the gang," to share not only in the work but in the play, in the joking, the beer after a long day, the weekend golf or tennis games, the barbecues.

Most people want to be liked, asked opinions of, included in the coffee klatches, have others drop into their offices for a chat, get a pat on the back, told a joke, or even made fun of in a good-natured way. In other words, most people would like to be seen as an integral part of the organization, group or community as opposed to feeling isolated, different, or not acceptable⎯all of which leads to feelings of alienation, sadness, or anger.

Some companies have no trouble with embrassing diversty in the work force; everyone's "differentness" is accepted as bringing value-added to the organization. Yet there are still other companies composed of mostly white, Christian, middle-class, heterosexual males⎯the "old boys" club⎯that have difficulties integrating a different person into their inner circle.

There are two types of issues in these situations: One is if you're African American, Latino, Asian, female, gay, transgender, physically handicapped, much older or younger, or belong to a different religious group. It takes a long time to "earn your stripes," "pass muster" in order to be accepted as "one of them." It may never happen, no matter how much one attempts to joke, go out with the gang, or make oneself useful.

Several famale attorneys recently shared that many male clients still request male attorneys, not only because of their own comfort level, but more importantly because they perceive a man to be more forceful at gaining the upper hand in a confrontational situation. This, of course, is not true. However, if the female wins points, she is labeled as a ball-buster. There is a fine line between being seen as assertive and aggressive. Either way, it is still to this day challenging for a woman to attain equality in predominantly male organizations.

Another example: People of color stand out in an all-white, all-male gathering and tend to not be included⎯the assumption being that it is easier to be with your own kind, you know what to expect, how to behave. There is often an underlying question: are these people hired to fill some quota versus merit or competency?

Yet there is another issue that has not been addressed. Suppose you're a white male in a white, Christian, heterosexual male culture and you appear to fit in, are accepted as such, but you may be Jewish, Muslim or some other religion, transgender or gay and no one has a clue. There is no awareness of your religious affiliation nor your sexual preference. When anti-Semitic, racist, or homophobic comments are made in the office, one can feel uncomfortable. It is possible that divulging one's identity and/or affiliation would close the doors of acceptance into the group. Although today's corporate cultures frown on such comments, it still happens.

This can also be true of some very light-skinned African Americans who have "passed" as Caucasian. The dilemma lies in whether not telling implies that you're hiding something and, therefore, viewed as lying.

The question is not whether telling or not telling, but how to react to slurs that attack one's identity. Non-reaction can make one feel like a coward; protesting in the name of prejudice, but not mentioning one's own identity, feels like a cop-out. This double bind can be very painful.
I know of a young Jewish man and of a gay man, both of whom said that they would not make partner in their law firms if it was revealed. Some people would advise them to leave the company, but this does not confront the issue⎯and seems like a cop-out.

My advice: Make partner, become part of the group, fit in, become wellliked, wellknown, wellaccepted. Once accomplished, inform them. It will confront their prejudices and perhaps even change their minds. Telling too soon and not making partner does not accomplish anything, but demonstrating that you can fit in while being different, is a lesson to be learned by all.