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black/white mannequins

black/white mannequins

We’ve all know the rules of what constitutes proper work chatter and what doesn’t. We constantly break these rules, though, because coworkers are like family due to the amount of time we spend with them.

When big national events happen, we want to chat with our coworkers about how we feel. The most important common sense rule is to keep the conversation respectful. Otherwise we’re supposed to keep our mouths shut. Sometimes, though, silence is the least respectful option. Sometimes your coworkers need to know you realize they are hurting or upset. Staying silent (when you don’t know what to say) can cause rifts in team cohesion. At the same time, heated arguments don’t help morale or efficiency either.

When it comes to chatting about the Ferguson case of police officer Darren Wilson killing 18-year-old Mike Brown, we need to stay aware of our coworkers’ varying experiences.

This is the hardest part. Seeing and validating a separate experience from our own is easier when the other person comes from another country and culture. For example, we automatically assume a Chinese national has grown up differently and has a very dissimilar perspective to ours. But when it comes to minority cultures within one’s own country, it’s much more difficult to assume the wide variance in life experience. The truth is there are many different cultural groups within one country and those groups’ members share their own common experience. Non-members are usually ignorant of that shared awareness.

Race relations overwhelm the Ferguson case, and that makes the discussion even more challenging. My suggestion is this: don’t shy away from the conversation. Here are some “scripts” (conversation phrases) you may want to use:

  • “Tell me how you feel about this Ferguson case.”
  • “I am ashamed to say I don’t know many of the details. What have you heard about it?”
  • “Grand juries almost never indict police officers. Is it time we re-examined why this is?”
  • “Here is what the Washington Post said is next for the case. What are your hopes about it?”
  • “Did you grow up in a diverse cultural situation or no? What was that like?”

For the sake of simplicity, here are some ground rules. First, remember: In general, for those in the majority, this case is to be viewed individually. For those in the minority, this case must be viewed in a greater historical context AND individually. Here are some things to think about before you jump in:

black/white dog


  • Assume your black co-workers know about the case and they are upset
  • Don’t expect them to bring the case up with you
  • Don’t expect them to chat about it or act as representatives
  • Ask questions, and apologize for not following the case or knowing details
  • Let them know you are at least a little bit aware of the unfairness they face every day
  • If you are feeling comfortable, ask them to share some of these unfair experiences


  • Assume most white people have very little idea about the details of the case
  • Expect coworkers may want to talk about it with you but don’t know how
  • It’s OK to say, “I appreciate you bringing it up, but I really don’t want to talk about it right now.”
  • Share some stories from growing up. Childhood life is relatable and can break the experience gap sometimes.
  • Assume (as you already do probably) white people think we all stand on common ground
  • Expect extreme views on the liberal/conservative spectrum. The majority culture is dominated by these outlying influences lately.

IF YOU’RE IN A GRAY AREA (like most of us):

  • Assume human nature is to categorize and will want to “pin you down” and place you in a group, even just for the sake of one conversation
  • Get used to saying something like, “Well, there’s always a gray area”
  • Expect discomfort when you express a non-committal opinion
  • Make “I” statements. Don’t start sentences with “You.” e.g. “I feel…”
  • Encourage sharing of stories that hold common experiences. Look to generational touchstones, like “children of the 80s will remember…” etc.
  • Perhaps be the summer-upper. Paraphrase the sides of the conversation for clarity. This can be helpful and will serve to keep the focus off you.

I realize seeing race, controversy, cultural divides, etc. spoken of so plainly in a web article can be jarring. We so often respect an unwritten ban on uncomfortable topics. Also, overgeneralizing about black or white people’s experience isn’t the best option for me, but I thought I’d take the risk. I’ve run into so many people online and off who want to speak about these issues more openly but are fearful of doing so. Perhaps with a few scripts or an article to link to, we can begin to open up and find a better way for all of us.


Also published on LinkedIn

Photo Credit: Header: DryHundred Fear on Flickr

Photo Credit: Black/white dogs: Rakib Hasan Suman on Flickr

Check out my other popular posts here on LinkedIn:

The 1st time I was called a racist at work

The 1 thing “diversity” can’t mean in IT

just a guy with glasses and a mustache making a grimace face

just a guy with glasses and a mustache making a grimace face

My co-workers and I called it the “Not Really Game.” Anytime one of us suggested anything, work-related or not, our team member Todd* would quickly negate it. We started offering up a con-statement one day and a pro-statement the next, just to see what Todd would come up with.

Here’s a a real-life (I kid you not) example:


Me: “Wow, Hannah is running a marathon this weekend. That must be really hard.”

Todd: “Not really. [blah blah blah -fill in some bull here about training, etc. -]”


Me: “You know, I think if anyone trained, they could run a marathon.”

Todd: “Not really, because [blah blah blah].”

Todd’s contrary opinions were as dependable as death and taxes. In meetings, Todd prided himself as being “devil’s advocate,” but in reality he was just a run-of-the-mill troll. It didn’t matter the subject; He’d automatically disagree and spew  reasons why. It was not only annoying; it was seriously hindering. Projects with Todd took twice as long (giving new meaning to the term “project creep”). If Todd didn’t agree with an action, he simply wouldn’t do it. He’d procrastinate or come up with some lame excuse why the task couldn’t be completed. 

The easy solution would be to fire Todd, but we all know how difficult it is to move people on. Plus, like many trolls of his ilk, Todd “managed up” well. To managers, Todd painted himself as the savior of the group due to his infinite wisdom and foresight. To everyone else, Todd blocked, demeaned and frustrated.

The Not Really Game other team members and I constructed was a back-handed way to help save our sanity. It wasn’t the kindest or wisest solution, though. Here are 3 constructive ways to deal with the troll in your office. 


Establish communication boundaries on individuals and groups. Make rules of engagement inherent in office culture. E.g., in meetings, we asked for 1 “con” per person. In other words, we didn’t entertain a litany of dumps from one person on why a project wouldn’t fly. Challenges like staffing, hardware, or physical space limitations were acceptable subjects. Complaints like “I’ll have to change my lunch hour from 11:30 to 12:00″ were shut down. Eventually Todd learned to keep those knee-jerk negative responses to himself. Hint: Be prepared to restate the rules every. single. meeting.


Trolls don’t work like the rest of us. They lack empathy, they don’t tire of arguing, and they have a deep-seated need to feel superior, even in the tiniest of endeavors. If we called out Todd on his inconsistency, he’d simply say we misunderstood him the first time, or worse – he’d insist that he was right in both cases! Winning an argument with him just wasn’t possible. We learned to let Todd spew. At times we’d ignore his response and keep discussing or we’d drop the subject entirely, stopping all conversation. Hint: grow accustomed to awkward silences.


Some days the only thing that keeps you going is the promise of a better life. Working with negative people is draining and is unsurprisingly one of the top-listed causes of employee attrition. Actively work on your career. Don’t let your résumé gather dust. Document every win and every lesson learned at work. Manage up, too. When you’re surrounded by negativity, it’s essential to have hope in eventual escape. Do whatever you have to do to keep that faith. Motivational books? Cat posters? Do it. Do it all. Hint: Find like-minded, positive people & groups online to help you along.


Do you have any dealing-with-a-jerk advice beyond the hard and fast Internet rule of “Don’t feed the trolls?” Any stories to share or any relevant groups? Let us know in the comments.


Also posted on Linnkedin. 

Todd’s name was changed, as was Hannah’s, to protect the not-so-innocent.

Photo Credit: Daniela Vladimirova on Flickr. That’s not Todd. That’s just some nice dude who is Movembering.


crowd of women in black and white with one in the center in color, smiling

crowd of women in black and white with one in the center in color, smiling

Whether you’re hiring, on the job market, or looking for a partner, seek out people with these two personality traits to increase your rate of success.

Google Goof

In its early days, Google hired people with high SAT scores, fantastic grade-point averages, and impressive PhDs from places like Stanford, MIT, and Caltech. Fancy stuff. Unfortunately for Google, all the fancy didn’t add up to a productive team and the ‘net giant realized it needed some fresh talent.

In his book A Rare Find: How Great Talent Stands Out, my friend George Anders writes about how Google’s early focus on narrow measures like education levels and SAT scores filled its desks with very smart – but ineffective – hires.

Realizing the mistake, Anders writes, Google “stopped reading résumés the usual way.” Instead of starting at the top, hiring expert Todd Carlisle paged down to the bottom of résumés to look for “hidden winners.”

“That’s where [Carlisle] might find out that someone had competed in four Alaska marathons … or had made it into The Guinness Book of World Records … or had published three software manuals by age twenty-five. For the right job, those weren’t peripheral details. They might be powerful insights into someone’s character or on-the-job potential.”

Finding those “powerful insights,” i.e. assessing someone accurately in a short amount of time, is an age-old need. Psychological testing was invented for this very purpose; armies asked WWI scientists to devise an exam that could weed out potential officers from a wide pool of enlisted men and assign the rest to duties well-suited to their skills (or lack thereof).

Yet testing, interviewing, and padded résumés only take us so far. Ultimately we’re left to make our best guess about people. A fool-proof formula eludes us, but by using a key hint from the realm of Counseling Psychology, we may be able to jump-start our search.

Marriage Secrets

Marriage researcher John Gottman claims that he can predict the marriage-survival rate of newlywed couples based on observing the couple argue for just a few minutes. If the couple exhibited 4 specific negative behaviors – stonewalling, defensiveness, contempt, and emotional withdrawal – Dr. Gottman predicted the couple would be divorced within five or six years. Repeated studies replicated the results, with up to 94% accuracy.

Dr. Gottman’s seminal work is the basis of most marital therapy today. The Gottman Method Couples Therapy works to increase the occurrence of the following behaviors:

  • respect
  • affection
  • closeness
  • breaking through/resolving of conflict
  • greater understanding
  • keeping conflict discussions calm

These traits aren’t just good for marriages; they’re good for the workplace. But what fundamental properties lie beneath these winning features? What basic personality building block does one need before they can grow to be respectful, understanding, and calm under pressure? I think there are 2: formal reasoning and creativity.

TRAIT #1: Formal Reasoning

In grad school, Jean Piaget was one of my favorites. An early developmental theorist, the frenchman divided human development into 4 stages: The baby stage (sensorimotor), the kid stage (pre-operational), the older kid stage (concrete operational) and the mature stage (formal operational). In brief, concrete thinkers are the black/white, right/wrong types. The formal thinkers can see more nuance and are comfortable with gray areas.

One day our professor was lecturing and writing some detailed factors of these stages on the board when he abruptly stopped and turned to us with a half-puzzled, half-surprised look. “You do realize,” he said, “that most people don’t actually reach formal operations?” A wave of clarity swept over me: Most people cannot think logically and abstractly. Suddenly things like tax assessments and Congress made sense.

Let’s say that again: Not everyone can consistently demonstrate formal reasoning. Also, my professor reminded us, because biases often keep people from expanding their impressions of certain subjects, many people aren’t able to use conceptual thinking across all areas. Regularly deploying a logical and highly abstract thought process is more rare than we’d like to think, but it’s the key trait you’re after when looking to fill a challenging position. If a person can reason and relax in gray areas, then she can probably learn quickly any job requirements that she lacks.

Your job as a hiring manager is to determine which requirements, if any, truly need a conceptual thinker. Can the job be broken into two jobs, one requiring more basic skills and the other higher order skills? (Hint: breaking a job into two separate – perhaps even part-time – jobs is a good way to bring in some diversity into IT organizations and train future leaders).

Uncovering the presence of formal reasoning can be done in different ways. Once you know what you’re looking for, usually a conversation about a workplace or personal challenge will bring it out. On the résumé, look for experience in complex situations. (Hint: don’t overlook volunteer positions. I was a VP of a public library’s Board of Trustees. Handling taxpayer money, negotiating with town politicos, and fielding patron complaints all required a higher understanding of how the little picture works inside a big one.) If you interview, ask the person to quickly summarize two sides of a highly politicized current event. Does she have the ability to see both view points and present them fairly? Does he become overly passionate for one side or the other? A person with a good handle on formal reasoning will understand why you are asking, what you are asking for, and will answer accordingly.

TRAIT #2: Creativity

orange background, white paper cut out men with one upside-down

Each year in Germany, small neo-nazi groups conduct marches to commemorate Nazi leaders and ideals. Many years, the marches were met with more anger and protest by the majority of Germans who can’t tolerate the hate. This year, the Washington Post reports, the small town of Wunsiedel turned things around. For every step the neo-nazis took, the town’s businesses would donate money to Rights versus Rights, an organization that helps reform neo-nazis and bring them out of their prejudiced and violent ideologies. So the neo-nazis’ march ended up contributing to their own destruction. Now that’s a creative solution!

Creativity is the new sexy. In light of stories like Wunsiedel, it’s easy to see why. Proceed with caution, though. Creativity is a wild and elusive beast. Since Positive Psychology’s (inexplicable and infuriating) rise in popularity among the C-suite, Creativity has become the Holy Grail of employee traits. And to be sure, creativity does seem to be the deciding factor between who succeeds and who fails.

In the age of keywords and hashtags, looking for “creativity” in a résumé is problematic. One could simply place “#creative” on her LinkedIn profile and recruiters or the HR department would give the link a thumbs up. Here’s where Google’s “bottom up” practice might help. Skim the bottom of the C.V. What are the candidate’s other interests? Do they cosplay? Game? What kind of organizations do they belong to? On the flip side, if you’re a job-seeker, don’t forget to list hobbies no matter how niche they may be (and – do I have to say this? – leave out any NSFW details). That 1st-place ribbon in the Speed Continental Knitting Competition may be the stand-out factor that gets you noticed. Plus, every interviewer wants a better ice-breaker question than “So what brings you here?”

Winning Combo

Conceptual thinking and “thinking-outside-the-box” are actions that give people the freedom to learn something new. If people are inherently drawn to creative endeavors and they’re able to draw connections between abstract concepts, then they’re usually the curious and passionate people who are eager to move forward. Hire them for your more skilled positions.

Examine your job descriptions. Are you expecting a creative type to do repetitive tasks? Break that position into two different jobs. Nothing kills a creative spirit and philosophical mind faster than mundane work.Many lower skilled workers would love to take on that dull data processing and rote server maintenance. As Daniel Pink says in his book, DRiVE: The Surprising Truth about What Motivates Us, Autonomy, Mastery, and Purpose are the factors that keep your creative and smart employees engaged and productive.


One may want to tack on traits like “kindness” and “patience” but I feel formal reasoning and creativity are the basis of those traits, too. What do you look for in an employee? Heck, what do you look for in a lover? For as much time as we spend with our co-workers, this is directly relatable, don’t you think?

Let me know in the comments.


Also posted on LinkedIn.

Photo Credit: Header image: Christine Cavalier (me, the author. I’m one of those creative media types! I shoot things. That pic was from the Women in Tech Conference Philly 2013. I ‘shopped it for relevance.)

Photo Credit: “Get creative” by JD Hancock on Flickr


The 1 thing “diversity” can’t mean in IT


“How did you get this job?”

“You’re just a client-side person, then?”

“You answer phones on the help-desk, right?”

“You have to learn this whole system from scratch?”

“What did you say your major was again?”

All of those questions have been posed to me by men throughout my Information Technology (IT) career. For the sake of efficiency, let’s just say they all were asked by “Josh,” a composite 20-something co-worker.

Josh asked the first 4 (and similar) questions in the beginning weeks of my employment. Some of his ridiculous attitude was rooted in sexism. I’ll write about that another day. Today let’s examine what else “diversity” can mean in the IT workplace. 

Get over it

The 5th question about my college major came months later. The surprise over my lack of Computer Science (CS) degree would always surface after I’d mastered and surpassed a tech skill. It was as if there was law against Psych majors grokking the command line.

To IT’s white male majority, “diversity,” usually means looking beyond race, creed, and perhaps gender. But there exists a taboo in geek culture too uncomfortable to approach. Let’s comment it out:

//not everyone needs a CS degree to work in IT

//your job isn’t that hard

Diversity in skill-set/background experience is the 1 thing IT guys can’t seem to accept. You’re CS, EE, CE or you’re out.

I get it. For Josh and fellow server room denizens, my psych-major presence presented them with a few harsh “realities.” According to Josh:

  • He paid and worked his ass off for a CS degree, and he could’ve “cruised” through a psych major.
  • She (Christine) doesn’t code as much as he does but she gets paid the same.
  • He will have to teach her everything!

Aside from the dis on Psych, this is where Josh’s logic breaks. Not only could his sys admin job be done by a less-than-l33t person, it could be mastered by one in a matter of months. This rocked Josh’s world so soundly that Josh had to start questioning his career expectations and path. The geek heaven Josh thought he was entering after college wasn’t the elite team of crack coders he expected. He wasn’t ruling a server room and running the whole business. Instead, he was on the same corporate ladder as everyone else (and at the bottom of it). Worse than this, he had to admit he lacked the business and communication skills needed to climb that ladder. All the coding languages, certifications, and CS skills Josh acquired weren’t going to be enough to float him to the top. 

Cool Cat vs. Grumpy Cat

Some Joshes took the hit of my existence in stride. Instead of brushing me off, they gave me keys to the kingdom one by one. When I didn’t break the Internet, they gave me more. Eventually I held all of the same access and I used it well. In fact, they’d send me off to do things like server maintenance and infrastructure duplications (usually for South America because I spoke Spanish) while they worked on some code. Other Joshes hemmed and hawed. They usually had poor coding skills that didn’t earn extra time from our managers. They would grow grumpier and grumpier while I steadily collected more skills and certs.


Somewhere along the way, these grumpy tech guys picked up an “I’m Special and You’re Not” brain tattoo. They held themselves back because they couldn’t accept that their job – or the whole world of enterprise IT – wasn’t reserved for the highly elite. Their job, once learned, was pretty repetitive and unchallenging. But the hardest part by far was accepting that they themselves weren’t highly elite, and that drove their prejudice and exclusionary behavior to dangerous levels.

The next time you send some techies off for a sensitivity seminar, make sure the course covers not only diversity in culture but also diversity in education and experience. As more systems are automated and more IT businesses sprout up, the non-CS worker will become the norm. Welcome them, and it’s ice cream for everybody.


CERN server room photo courtesy of Torkild Retvedt on Flickr

Grumpy Cat Poster (which I added just for you l33ts) courtesy of Metropolis Radio on Flickr



The 1st time I was called racist at work


Saying the Wrong Thing

My 1st lesson in the School of Workplace Hardknocks came when I was 19-years-old. My fellow inner-city day camp counselors and I were joking around as usual. At one point, I addressed the other counselors as “you people.” Where I came from, “you people” was the plural “you” of preference. But what happened next forever changed my personal and professional life.

The face of my African-American co-worker Michelle* turned to stone. A hush fell over the group. Then Michelle’s anger exploded like a firebomb. I was stunned. Other counselors tried to calm her, but Michelle went straight to our supervisor Tanya.

Tanya (a white woman most probably untrained in diversity herself) called me into her office and accused me of using a racial slur. I’ll never forget that feeling of utter confusion, panic, and shame that swept over me at that moment. In one fell swoop, Michelle and Tanya destroyed my confidence as a competent employee and more importantly, stripped my self-image as a tolerant and peace-loving human being. I didn’t lose my job but the rest of the summer we all walked on eggshells. My day-camp counseling days were over, even though I loved working with the kids. 

Many Hard Knocks Later…

More than a decade had passed when during a funny banter-filled conference call, my white, middle-aged boss (who lived not far from where I grew up) made what I’d call a slightly offensive side comment. A tiny moment of silence followed but the jaunty conversation bounced back. Immediately afterwards, Emma, the sole African American team member, rang my desk phone. “Did you catch that?” she asked. “Yes I did,” I said. “I’m sorry, Emma. Let me apologize for him.” We had a frank conversation and then got back to work. Emma wasn’t looking for retribution; She just wanted some acknowledgement. 

That night I sent some gratitude up to the universe for the harsh but valuable lesson from Michelle and Tanya. That first –and last– accusation of racism sent me on a curious journey into cultural diversity which allowed me to become the type of person with whom Emma could have a safe and honest chat about these clashes that happen daily in a diverse workplace.

Hearing the Buzz

That’s the trouble with cultures-of-origin: they are invisible to us. Like bees, we can’t hear the buzzing of our own hive. 19 and fresh from growing up in the sticks, I had no idea that the phrase “you people” could be construed as excluding. Like a bee’s buzz, we can’t notice our own endemic cultural traditions and turns of phrase and inevitably we bring those reference points to the workplace. How can we avoid the mishaps that result when different bees from various hives come together in one place?

I’ve put together 5 (somewhat controversial) hints that I’ve picked up over my two decades of experience, including formal cultural studies and working with diverse groups. 


  1. You will misspeak. We’re all human. We’re going to trip up sometimes. The key is to be aware that we’re bees in the first place, and we each have our own unique buzz we learned from home hive of origin. If I’ve let “you people” slip, I apologize and explain that’s my version of “y’all.” I don’t ignore my possible mistake in hopes it’ll slide.
  2. Own up. Don’t assume everyone shares your buzz. Think of culture like Thanksgiving dinner – you can probably assume everyone has a turkey, but it’s a free-for-all for side dishes. Every family has their own unique recipes that are handed down for generations. Your side dishes will be different from everyone else’s. Be aware of that.
  3. Ignorance usually isn’t willful. Give people the benefit of the doubt. It’s possible they’ve not spent enough time out of their hive. Give them (and yourself) some time to adapt to the workplace culture. If people refuse to learn some diversity lessons, assume it’s fear and not hate that stymies them.
  4. Human Resources is not your friend. Yeah, I said it. The Human Resource department exists for one reason: to protect the organization against liability. Getting supervisors or Human Resources involved in each small clash isn’t wise or efficient. When possible, deal with whatever clash immediately by being honest and fair (with your co-workers and yourself). Seek out disciplinary help only when the offender is disruptive to the work flow.
  5. Drop the “Color-Blindness” Schtick. Claiming one exists outside of the greater cultural and historical context of the country, or one is “color-blind,” is just plain silly. Not every conversation has to be about race but it’s OK to acknowledge differences in experience. E.g., when white people avoid discussing race, it can make minority members feel a bit crazy, like they can hear the buzz and no-one else can or they can see a large elephant in the room but the white people act like it isn’t there. It’s there. Don’t pretend it isn’t.

Divide up and Discuss

I realize this conversation is tough. My presentation isn’t perfect. (I’m pretty sure I’ll hear from the Human Resource Managers out there!) But hopefully you can use this a a starting point. Please share your own stories, experiences, and wisdom in the comments. Thanks.


*Names changed, so don’t search my contacts list ;)

Also published on LINKEDIN

Photo credits: Header: Christine Cavalier. Bees: Sean Winters on Flickr

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