Discrimination at work

Two years ago I was in Paris with an Austrian delegation for an event my company organized in collaboration with Polish partners. I was part of the management in a private company in Vienna and I regularly organized events in Cannes, Paris and Frankfurt. The day before the event, we were invited by our Polish partners to an exquisite dinner in one of the oldest restaurants in Paris. In total, we were people of four nationalities: Austrian, Polish, French and me, the Romanian.

The waiter barely on his way out after arranging the silverware, I hear someone at the table: “Everybody, please guard your silverware, Romanians are at the table!”, followed by a generous laugh. Nurturing good intentions I am sure, the Polish lady sitting next to me took my hand into hers and looked into my eyes with pity. “It must be so difficult…” she said, strongly emphasizing the “o” and stretching it so much that in an instant I became a victim against my will.

Pause of breath. Silence. Shock. Some pair of eyes looked at me, others looked down in an attempt to make an escape from the incredibly uncomfortable situation. No one wished to witness this but no one said anything either.

“This is so wrong and inappropriate!” I managed to answer while the restaurant span with me. After a moment of silence, someone else started a new conversation and the dinner continued like nothing happened.

Discrimination at work based on prejudice or nationality is generally no joke. It is prohibited by law! And yet it happens everywhere in Europe. So, what do you do about it? How can you prevent it? How do you start to change perceptions? Is it in your power to educate people? How do you manage the anger? And what if the person who discriminates you is your boss or your direct manager, your colleague or a business partner? Would be any difference if I was a man and not a woman? And if this happens at such level, I wonder how is the situation with the low-skilled immigrants? How are they looked at? What people think of them, say about them, and treat them?

According to a note of the Directorate General for Internal Policies within the European Parliament “the legal framework granting rights to migrant workers in the EU is under continuous development.” And “surveys have found that 39% of immigrants/ethnic minorities are unaware of legislation forbidding discrimination in employment and so many don’t report incidents.”

While I think that the possibility of reporting is very important, I believe there are some other ways as well to prevent and improve situations like the one I experienced. I believe that the development of programs and activities for employees with multicultural background, where the management is involved as well, can be a powerful tool to promote diversity, tolerance, respect towards other cultures, and non-discrimination at the workplace. It doesn’t have to be an expensive team-building trip. But it can be a multicultural lunch with homemade dishes promoting the culture of the employees. It can be a day where you wear your national clothes at work. It can be an intercultural communication workshop where intercultural dialogue and sensitivity are explained. It can be a 10 minutes creative presentation of someone’s culture on a Friday afternoon. It can be anything as long as it is respectful and encouraged by the organization.

Many years ago, when I was a student, I had a summer job in a restaurant in France, as I needed to earn money in order to continue my studies. The restaurant was located in Mont St Michel in Bretagne, a remote touristic region but absolutely amazing. None of my work colleagues had the smallest idea about Romania, not even where it's located on the map. The only time they heard about it was in a famous French cartoon, because the main character, Tintin, traveled somewhere in the East, in Moldavia. The owner of the restaurant, a very nice 80 years old businessman, asked me how Ceausescu was doing. The dictator who was shot to death in 1989. We were in 2002! I remember that the next day I came to work loaded with all the brochures and maps I could find about Romania and made a short presentation of my country and culture during lunch break. At the end of my presentation, my colleagues told me they would love to visit my country one day. And if they didn’t manage to do that, at least that day I changed some perceptions.

The European Commission Directorate-General for Justice is granting EUR 439 million between 2014 and 2020 for programs promoting the rights, equality and citizenship in the Member States together with Iceland and Liechtenstein. Promotion of non-discrimination and combat of racism, xenophobia, homophobia and other forms of intolerance are among the main points of the program. I hope that more and more organizations and institutions will develop programs together with the business sector in order to integrate and protect migrants against discrimination at the workplace.

While experiences like the one in Paris can be very difficult to digest, it actually helped me in my previous work when I used to lead a project team of 5 multicultural interns. It was one of those “How not to” examples. Every year, my team would see completely new members because that was the policy of the company. So in 5 years I got to work with young people originating from Taiwan, Kazakhstan, Ukraine, France, Austria, Germany, Argentina, USA, Belarus, and Albania. What a challenging experience each time! Starting with the hiring process, which proved to be very difficult for certain nationalities, and going all the way through the coaching and daily working and communicating together.

It is important to say “thank you” to the cleaning lady of Eastern European decent, who mops your office every morning. It is important to explain your team member that as your door is literally wide open, there is no need she constantly excuse herself every time she enters your office, thinking that she bothers you, because this is how hierarchy at the workplace is dealt with in her culture. It is important to respect that, and to make that person feel comfortable and make her feel that you are always reachable and listening. It is important to encourage those who are coming from cultures where they are only told what to do, to actively take initiatives. It is important to share experiences with your colleagues to better understand who they are and where they are coming from and they can better understand you. It is a start and if everyone practices, it can really make a difference!