Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Sharing and caring

This is my column today at the op-ed section of the Manila Standard Today.

There is an interesting phenomenon happening at the call center industry that highlights exactly how unprepared industry is to deal with the increasing complexities of the workplace, particularly diversity issues. Sure, management people in this country including my fellow human resource practitioners try to be hip and cool, mouthing buzzwords like “respect for diversity,” “compassion and acceptance” and even “empowering people.” In reality, it is a different story altogether. Very, very few companies actually understand what diversity means. Fewer still are companies who have programs to address diversity issues in the workplace.

There are companies which hire minorities such as the Deaf (they prefer to be addressed that way—with an upper case letter “d”—to denote their uniqueness and to say there is nothing wrong with them but that they are simply different). Companies like these, however, are very few and quite frankly, there are fewer success stories. Of course, there are companies that hire minorities such as physically challenged individuals to gain public relations mileage—simply for the purpose of showing them off as proof of the company’s conscience.

For quite some time now, I have been trying to document best practices in managing diversity in the Philippines. Sadly, there aren’t a lot to document. Indications seem to say that despite our rhetoric about how caring and nurturing Philippine society is, the fact is that there is very low tolerance in the workplace for people who are “different,” particularly toward minorities.

On the surface, it does look like we are more tolerant and accepting particularly of the physically challenged; but sadly, it is really often pakitang tao (for show) or out of compassion and a sense of kindness rather than genuine appreciation for the uniqueness of each individual.

Take the case of the Deaf. There is a program for the Deaf at the College where I teach and it is very evident based on their behaviors inside the campus that there is nothing wrong with them. They just speak another language, that’s all. They are a linguistic minority—it is like having an encounter with people from an African country who speak a completely different language. But sadly, many prefer to see the Deaf as dumb and mentally infirm. Consequently, they get treated that way.

If appreciating the issues around the physically challenged is already problematic despite the presence of factors that work in their favor such as social responsibility, compassion, etc, just imagine what the situation is in the case of sexual minorities in the workplace.

The pervading view is that physically challenged people do not have a choice about what makes them different, many of them were born that way; or to toe the line of the religious people, God made them that way.

The case of lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgenders, however, is another thing because many people see it as an aberration that the particular person chose. Again, to toe the line of the religious, God did not make them that way, God only created Adam and Eve.

The issue becomes psychological, religious and moral as well. And in this country, all hell breaks loose the moment issues begin to acquire a moral dimension. That’s when hypocrisy gets into the picture.

Because client interaction in the call center industry is limited to a telephone conversation (or in other cases, online chat which requires exchange of messages in text form), a number of call center companies have started to open their recruitment and selection processes to the so-called minorities.

These include older people (yes, most companies in this country still impose age limits for applicants and it is a complicated issue that also requires legislation, but that is another column) and yes, sexual minorities including transgender people who are joining the workplace as “themselves.”

Let me explain. Transgenders are people who self-identify as being of another gender, for example, men who self-identify as women, and therefore dress, behave and live their lives as women. In the past, transgenders who chose to go to school and join the workplace had to adjust to strict norms about dressing up which expectedly posed serious emotional problems (imagine denying and suppressing who you are and pretending to be someone else every day of your life and seeing how difficult that could be).

This eventually led to productivity problems. Of course, those who could not cope drop out of school early on and become outcasts in our society.

But because the call center industry does not require physical interface with clients, the norms about corporate attire have become relatively unimportant. Also, probably due to years of practice and experience in coping with objections and verbal abuse, transgenders have been found to be more patient and generally better at managing difficult clients. Thus, more call centers have been hiring transgenders.

However, what should be a mutually beneficial arrangement is now imperiled due to seeming inadequacy of industry to manage the social issues that come with the territory.

In a number of call centers today, there is a raging issue on whether transgenders should be allowed to use bathrooms assigned for women.

The transgenders were hired as transgenders and come to work dressed and behaving like women. So why shouldn’t they be allowed to use the bathrooms for females?

Apparently, a number of women in these companies have mixed feelings about having to share bathrooms with people who look like women but in their minds are still men.

This is a natural reaction I think—and ideally, the natural response should be to help these women deal with the mixed feelings through an enlightened and open discussion of the issues.
Let me state for the record: I am not unilaterally advocating that transgenders should be allowed to use bathrooms for women. I am saying that the issue deserves a more enlightened and open-minded discussion.

Unfortunately, what happens is that very often there is too much focus on the “static” around the issues such as personal biases, unfounded generalizations, unscientific analyses, etc., and these get in the way of more proactive responses to the problem.

For example, in one of my professional e-mail groups, a recent discussion on the issue tended to focus on moralizing and much to my chagrin, even surfaced sexist and uncalled for side comments that tended to make fun or ridicule transgenders, even from the otherwise erudite senior members of the profession! The discussion thread eventually found its way into becoming a rowdy discussion on bathroom habits.

There are companies where this issue of sharing bathrooms is not a problem at all. This is because they put in place programs to address gender issues and they strive hard to maintain a gender-sensitive and empowering workplace. Heck, many establishments have unisex bathrooms (Starbucks for example) and we do not have problems with that.

In most houses, bathrooms are also unisex—we don’t make distinctions about gender in our homes.

The key is to help people deal with their own preconceived notions about sexual minorities, many of which are borne out of misguided fears or out of plain ignorance. But it is a long way to go. More on this at a later time.

4 comments:

Jego said...

I used to work in an office with a unisex bathroom. We had both heterosexual and homosexual employees and bosses there. We had no problem with that. Separate toilets in offices seems silly if you really think about it. It's just a place where one pees and poops. :-)

vic said...

Before l982 and prior to the passage of Our Charter of Rights and Freedoms (Constitution Act of 1982) we had the same problem with Equality. Now most of the hindrances were minimized if not entirely eliminated. Safeguards were codified into our labour laws, Human Rights code and some into our Criminal Codes. The Provision itself is short and succinct and was amended to include Sexual Orientations under the Criminal Code. Now it is almost complete. Relief for enforcement could be criminal offenses or civil cases and mostly for damages in violation of constitutional rights and Laws that could fail the test to the provision during challenges in court automatically become void and unenforceable. With your permission I will post that Section of our Charter: Section 15. (1) Every individual is equal before and under the law and has the right to the equal protection and equal benefit of the law without discrimination and, in particular, without discrimination based on race, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, sex, age or mental or physical disability.

snglguy said...

With regards to bathroom sharing at the workplace, I guess one reason for this fear or concern among women is that, it is open for abuse by some opportunistic sex deviants posing as transgenders.

vic said...

When I was working for the Philippine Railway in Iloilo in the late 60s and early 70s, we have a common washroom or rest room and also used if as smoking room. The problem was when women, do their "peepee" the guy next stool or by the windows smoking will always make some funny comments like "what are we having here, fried eggs" and you can hear all the not so tasteful sound from opposite sexes all the time, and we even caught some of our co-workers doing their extra-curriculars inside the stool and that was very funny...