Facilities (Managing Assets)

Perceptions Vs. Reality

Acknowledging diversity is more than a two-way street.

We all do it. I do it in spite of myself. We judge events, things and people based on how we remember our previous experiences or on pre-formed opinions that we may have inherited from others.

I had an uncle who only spoke Dutch. I had an opportunity to travel to southern Spain some years ago, where he and my aunt rented a condo in Torremolinos. He and I travelled around that part of the country for a few days and always arrived at our intended destinations. What amazed me is that he, not being able to speak a single word of Spanish other than “Si,” achieved what he wanted by simply yelling louder… in Dutch.

This reminded me of when I was a kid growing up in Holland. I was approached by a man who spoke no Dutch. He asked me a question to which I did not know how to respond. Frustrated, he yelled something and wildly gesticulated in a manner that made no sense to me and then stomped off, leaving me in tears.

Appearances Only Define the Surface

Oftentimes, we must look beyond that which we think we see. Sometimes, we are guilty of judging our staff entirely by what we see of them in the workplace. We forget that they generally spend only 40 hours per week with us. While not working for us, they may lead lives that have no resemblance to what they show us. They could be ecclesiastical leaders, or volunteers at boys’ and girls’ clubs, volunteer firefighters, or soccer coaches, or a whole gamut of things that have nothing to do with the type of work they do in facilities management. (Okay, one or two might be drug dealers… or worse.) Conversely, our employees and coworkers might look at us with the same type of biased eyes. They might not appreciate that we are involved in activities that bear no similarity to what we do on the job. In my own case, many of the people I worked with were surprised and impressed that I volunteered at our university’s home football games, and that I refereed at youth soccer games.

For too many people, living with diversity is complicated. It shouldn’t be. In my part of the country, most people assume that individuals of Hispanic origin are Roman Catholic. At the same time, others tend to assume that African-Americans are Baptist, not members of the locally dominant religion. You might ask, what does it matter? And I would agree with you: it should not. Yet, I have had several situations where complaints of harassment and discrimination were submitted because of comments and behavior directed (real or supposed) toward individuals who were perceived to be different. Once again, it works both ways.

We had one young woman who worked for us for several years in our accounting department. We were surprised when she quit in a huff, claiming that we were harassing her because she was Jewish. Ironically, none of us were aware of that fact because it didn’t matter, and of course we never asked! On a similar note, we had one trade supervisor who, when dealing with a customer, used a phrase containing a (until then) fairly commonly used slur. The statement contained one word relating negatively to a well-known religion. As fate would have it, the person to whom he was talking was of that religion. This individual became very emotional and filed a complaint. One can well imagine the commotion that situation caused within our department and in Human Resources, as it should have. Severe disciplinary action and accompanying diversity training followed for the entire department, to the dismay of numerous innocent individuals.

Cultivate Awareness

Let’s not forget that our students, faculty and researchers also deserve the same level of awareness. Faculty are likely extremely smart and successful in their own specialties. That does not mean that they understand the business of facilities management, the makeup of individuals working in facility departments, and the many strange terms we use (even if they think they do). They may not accept that the “system” on a college campus is not the same as it may be in their own environments away from the campus. Thus, when something has to be done a certain way because of policies or restrictions, some faculty members have been known to take it out on the facilities technician whom they’re facing at the moment, yet who is powerless to change the system. On the other hand, who in facilities management has not had an employee who treated faculty or students with rudeness or contempt?

Let’s face it, the diversity challenges we have in our own organizations mirror those in our college universe.

This article originally appeared in the College Planning & Management October 2013 issue of Spaces4Learning.

About the Author

Pete van der Have is a retired facilities management professional and is currently teaching university-level FM classes as well as doing independent consulting. He can be reached at [email protected].

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