When You Are the Only Minority at Work

When You Are the Only Minority at Work

By Mark Swartz


What if you work where everyone else is more or less alike? You’re the only minority there. It could be in terms of gender, race, colour, religion. Or nationality, heritage, sexual orientation. Facial disfigurement or being differently abled.

This happens most often in smaller employers or those located outside of cities. The experience can be alienating. There may be discrimination to deal with, or the pressure of “tokenism.”

These could take a toll on your self-esteem and performance. Before that occurs, try some coping techniques that can help turn things around.


Know That the Tensions are Usually Temporary

Looking, speaking or acting unique means you stand out. Co-workers may not know much about your minority group. To compensate they may rely on stereotypes and unconscious biases.

At first other employees might keep their distance, or make remarks that come across as insensitive. This can be hurtful and isolating. However it is often a passing stage. As people get to know you, and see you more as a reliable contributor, welcoming (or at a minimum, acceptance) tends to follow.


Overcome Tokenism

Sometimes employers hire someone as a display of supporting diversity. You may be the only openly LGBT person or non-white on staff. That can feel like you have to represent the whole of your minority group.

If you fail, will they close the door to your “people” thereafter? Do you have to be an ideal model so that colleagues will have a favourable opinion about everyone else of your “kind?”

That’s an enormous responsibility. Better to be authentic and focus on productivity. You needn’t speak for all others like you. However if you feel it will help to take some time and explain some of your background or practices, do so. Knowledge can be a great dissolver of discrimination.


Avoid Isolation

Prejudice can lead people to exclude you. Unfortunately not everyone will overcome their reservations despite your best efforts. You may need to find ways to reduce being isolated.

Reach out to other staff and attempt to connect via shared interests and experiences. Ask them about their families and hobbies. Deep down we are all human beings and have similar drives.

Participate in company-sponsored affinity and networking groups. Join external professional organizations too. They may have other minorities and expose you to a variety of peers.

In addition locate a mentor. That person could be internal or external. They will provide guidance and add to the informal support grid to lean on.


Deal with Discrimination

A hazard of being the sole minority is a possibility of encountering intolerance. It may come in a subtle form or blatant outburst. Decide in advance how to handle this. That way you won’t be caught gasping for a response if it happens.

What behaviours or statements do you deem unacceptable? Consider if they are done inadvertently or with intent to upset you. For unintended slights, taking the offender aside and gently explaining the impact on you can enlighten them for the future.

If you experience a deliberate act of prejudice, avoid reacting emotionally. Attempt to remove yourself from the situation immediately. Calm down and make notes about the event: who was there, what happened when, how you responded.

Go through internal channels to deal with what amounts to a code of conduct violation. If the situation isn’t dealt with satisfactorily, you can lodge a complaint with your province’s Human Rights Board and consult an employment lawyer inexpensively.


Leverage Your Uniqueness at Work

Being noticeably different can create a strong desire to fit in. That strategy can certainly succeed as you become a productive member of the team.

There is also an alternative approach: turn your diversity into a competitive advantage. Start an in-house diversity panel. Provide a bridge if your employer reaches out to your group for sales or partnering.

Canada’s workforce is constantly becoming more varied. Being one-of-a-kind can be an opportunity to shatter prejudices and expand your employer’s horizons.