Why won’t you look me in the eye?

Earlier in my career, I was the team lead on an engagement with a major client. As the project got underway, I started to notice something strange about the way my client interacted with me. Namely, that he wouldn’t interact with me.

When I spoke, he barely made eye contact – even if I was speaking to him directly. In meetings, he would only address my second in command. It made no sense. The project had just gotten underway. I hadn’t even had the chance to mess anything up!

It didn’t take long to realize that something else was at play here. And, as the only non-white member of the team, and the only member of the team the client would not engage with, I made an educated guess what that was.

I chose to address the situation directly – politely but directly. It wasn’t an easy conversation; no one wants to be the person to rock the boat in a client relationship. However, while awkward, I believe the client appreciated my honesty, which prompted him to take a fresh look at behaviors he may not have been engaging in consciously. The relationship took a 180 degree turn from that point forward. And, as a result of the work our team did, we had a successful engagement.

I share this story as a reminder that while your organization may be doing all the right things to support a diverse and inclusive workplace, that may not be the case for other organizations you work with closely. But, is it your responsibility to take up the issue with them? I would argue it should be.

Serving customers or clients is a privilege that puts the service provider in a position to make a truly meaningful impact. We can act as role models by supporting them with diverse teams and candidly addressing any undercurrents of resistance. Even if you are in a more junior position, it is an opportunity to connect with your manager and strategize together how best to work through the issue.

The strong business case for a diverse and inclusive workplace has helped shift the tide in the right direction, but diversity in the workplace remains in the spotlight. Up for debate these days is whether establishing diversity targets is the right approach to help companies accelerate their progress. But targets are not enough. Businesses must create a culture that supports and values diversity of all kinds. And that is an effort these businesses can and should extend to their customers and clients. Not only because it’s the right thing to do, but because it is an important dimension of exceptional service.

Do you believe you have a responsibility to help your customers or clients embrace diversity in the workplace? Share your comments here.
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About hakim punya

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