Research shows the “old boy’s network” is alive and well and informal networks remain significant barriers to inclusion in the workplace.
Informal networks affect who gets jobs, who gets “face time” with the boss or included in informal activities where they learn “the unwritten rules.” And even those of us who think we “get it” could learn a thing or two from a recent study — The Lived Workplace Experiences Of Employees Who Are Blind Or Visually Impaired.
Study author Dr. Mala Naraine, a post-doctoral fellow at Ryerson’s Centre for Learning Technologies, shared her insight into the problems of social exclusion given that most people rely on visual cues to build friendships and networks in organizations.
It is often assumed that a person who is blind must simply learn alternative techniques to do efficiently the same things that they would do with “normal” vision. Some barriers — access to print, lack of speech output programs, inadequate training, and barriers to transportation, for example — are well understood. But most employers do not fully recognize their duty to accommodate and most blind employees are not aware of their legal rights.
In Naraine’s study, the lack of accommodation of social needs was striking as respondents described their experiences of isolation in the workplace. Quite apart from the stereotypes that affect the treatment of blind or visually impaired people, sighted people take much for granted.
A blind or visually impaired person coming to a meeting or social event is not instantly oriented to the layout — where is the speaker? Where is the audience? Where is the coffee? They cannot tell if there are five people or 500. Nor do they know if they are surrounded by close friends or strangers.
Sighted people use visual cues to form relationships — eye contact, smiles, gestures, and body language — that move us from recognizing someone to becoming an acquaintance and then a friend.
While a sighted person has many daily interactions — walking through a building, smiling, nodding and waving at colleagues, a blind person walking down the same hall may feel completely alone unless they are spoken to. And blind and visually impaired people are less likely to be included in informal social gatherings, whether going for a coffee, lunch or a drink after work.
Naraine’s research certainly opened my eyes to a subtle but important barrier to inclusion and how it is possible to feel completely alone in a sea of people.
Wendy Cukier is the associate dean of the Ted Rogers School of Management at Ryerson University, and the founder of Ryerson’s Diversity Institute.