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January 16, 2014A few weeks ago we found ourselves stopping for an after-work drink at a holiday happy hour in a local bar near our Wall Street office. As we mingled, we were asked the typical “So, what do you do?” While for many, this question might feel like a throwaway line, for us it carries a bit of weight. Because while the majority of the crowd in this financial district bar can respond with “I’m a broker” or “I’m an investment banker,” we say “We’re researchers at Catalyst, a nonprofit focused on workplace diversity,” a response that is inevitably followed by, “Oh, interesting. So, what does that mean exactly?”

As researchers trying to explain what we do in a room full of bankers, we admit we felt a little “different”—oddly appropriate, considering we just finished a report about the experience of feeling like an “other” in the workplace. You can imagine the reactions we got: “An ‘other’? What’s that? You mean, like being a minority? Like Latino or African-American?”

Well, race/ethnicity is definitely one way someone can feel like an “other,” but our study shows that anyone can be an “other.” It’s really about your experiences in your workplace and whether you feel different from the majority, perhaps because of factors like age, education, sexual orientation, or nationality.

Say, for example, you’re a heterosexual, white, American male with an MBA. You might not feel like an “other” in your workgroup right now. But imagine your company decides to send you abroad to help Japanese banks prosper. You’re suddenly surrounded by people who aren’t white and aren’t American, and a culture that’s profoundly different from yours. You’d probably now feel like the “other”—someone who stands apart. And if no one embraced you as part of the team, you’d begin to believe that you just didn’t belong, which could cause you to withdraw. You might hesitate to speak up or raise your hand for opportunities, and ultimately be held back.

However, being an “other” doesn’t have to be a negative experience. It only becomes problematic when workplaces are not inclusive—when feeling like an “other” puts you on the outside in a way that can result in negative career consequences, like fewer promotions and less access to career-advancing “hot jobs.” Experiences like these could eventually lead you to downsize your aspirations. Not because you are different, but because you are made to feel different. By valuing employees’ differences, companies can provide equal opportunities for them to contribute fully.

As we discussed our research in the bar that night, we heard things like: “You know, my girlfriend is Korean-American and we met at work, and I’ll admit it never occurred to me that her gender or her background might make her feel excluded. You’ve got me curious now. I’m going to ask her about it when I get home.”

We realize that in most cases, companies (and their employees) are not willfully discriminating—in fact, they typically don’t even realize that it’s happening. Awareness is the first step to solving the problem. And having people who value differences and act as champions for “others” is critical. We all, as individuals, have the power to be catalysts for change in our workplaces.

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Read more about the study.

View the Infographic.

Have you ever felt like an “other” in the workplace? Share your comments below!