Wednesday, November 25, 2015

The Importance of A Diverse HR Department/Management

Over the years I've had the privilege of experiencing a variety of different company cultures- as a contractor and as a direct employee. The company cultures have run the gambit from super liberal and inclusive environments where everyone hung out with each other after work, to very conservative workplaces where there were regulations on everything down to a strict ban on headphones. And as you would expect with that range of workplaces, I fit in in some places and felt like a total outsider in others.
Sometimes it's hard to tell if a new company sees different as okay
As much as we as engineers like to ignore the role the HR department and management play in our every day environment, I've noticed that the diversity of the HR department and supervision is a fairly good indicator of company culture. Especially in places where you don't fit in (whether it is your gender, race, religion, politics, etc.), it is imperative to have a company culture where people understand what it is to be different.

Let's say, for example, you are a young female non-christian liberal working in company dominated by white male republican men. You try not to advertise your differences, and just blend in. But one day, you feel uncomfortable with something about how you are being treated because you are different. Maybe as a woman that's receiving explicit texts from male coworkers, or being treated like a secretary. Or as a non-christian maybe people are trying to convert you in the middle of the work day. Or if you are a different race maybe somebody made a racial slur. I've seen all of these happen in the work place...  But would you feel comfortable reporting these issues somebody in HR who is also a white christian republican man? Would you feel like he'd understand your point, or would he relate better to the people harassing you?

Maybe he would understand and take appropriate action to help you. This is by no means saying that all (or even most) white christian men wouldn't try to help. But the point is, if there is any hesitation that he might not - victims are likely to let problems go unreported rather than risk being blacklisted from the industry.

At least that's how I've felt when I'm in precarious positions. And with many of my stories (being discounted for my age, having my success attributed to my feminine wiles, coworkers placing bets on who will date the new female engineer, coworkers "flirting" by being assholes, being set up with clients' children and so many more gems) my friends have asked "why didn't you report this?!"

The answer is that like all well crafted "good ol' boys" clubs, everyone I could have complained to appeared to be a member of that club. Even the guys in HR at one company would spend afternoons discussing how they were going to fuck their wives that night loudly enough that we could hear every word even with the door closed. If they are part of the problem, how on earth am I expected to ask them for help? I want to be an engineer, not spend my life fighting legal battles or defending myself for every little thing. (I totally left that place by the way, so don't feel too bad for me now.) I imagine the same story is true for many other people; not all of whom have the ability to move on as easily as I did.

Which brings me back to my main point- an inclusive environment is constructed from the top down by diverse leadership and a diverse HR department. And an inclusive environment is how a company retains talented people- not just people who fit into a mold. So when you are joining a new place, don't just stare past the HR rep. Take a good look around, and try to figure out if this is a company culture where you feel you can thrive.



Monday, November 9, 2015

Some Days You Spill Coffee On Yourself

Some days you arrive at work after a long commute, and you step out of your car. You smile and exchange pleasantries with a coworker who has also just arrived. You pick up the iced coffee you brewed specially for that day, with some pumpkin spice for the first time this year so you can fully enjoy the depth of fall. The sun is shining, and you know today is going to be a great day. You reach for your bag. You spill your coffee all over yourself.

Sometimes you are lucky and it blends into the dark pants you are wearing, and sometimes it spills all over your shirt you have to try to hide it with a sweater during unseasonably warm weather. Every interaction that day is colored by the stain dried into your clothes. You wonder if others notice the stain, if they can smell stench of pumpkin spice that follows you like a ghost. You try to think about your project, but instead you wonder if you should just explain yourself instead of letting them jump to some wild conclusions about why you would be so disheveled today. And just like that, the split second when you didn't quite grab that rubber maid bottle has managed to ruin your entire day.

Or perhaps you don't have days like this, but I certainly do. It's not always spilling coffee, but something just as small can start a chain reaction that throws me into a funk for the rest of the day. Like the office bully saying exactly the wrong thing to me, or figuring out that I missed something obscure last month that is now painfully obvious, or being told by my management to back off of a project I feel is important, or feeling like I've wasted my morning without getting anything checked off of my to-do list. In that moment I feel helpless, because I know how that this is exactly the type of thing that will throw my entire day off and I might as well just go home.

But every morning one of those things doesn't happen isn't a cause for celebration. I don't see each day I don't spill coffee on myself as a win- part of what will allow me to focus enough to get some real work done today. That's because when they don't go wrong, each of those puzzle pieces is just a part of my morning routine that I take for granted. And in a way, sometimes that piece of the day not working perfectly just highlights that the morning is made up of lots of little things that went right: I got up on time; I drove safely; there was no unexpected traffic on my way here; and my coworkers are smiling and friendly. As an engineer, I recognize that making a morning out of hundreds of cases which could all end in a catastrophic failure and none of which guarantee success is a terrible design unless I hope to fail.

I already know that I am not perfect, just like everyone else. I know other people spill coffee on themselves sometimes too, but it's hard to face my own imperfection because I expect more from myself even with the little things. But if only one little thing goes wrong out of the countless of things I do during the morning, maybe I'm actually doing pretty well.

Some days I spill coffee on myself, and it reminds me that a lot of other things went right. Today can still be a great day.