To open his session for the CUNA Management School’s second year class, Ronaldo Hardy asked students to leave the classroom briefly. Students formed two groups: women and minorities, and white males.
When the groups re-entered the classroom, again separately, Hardy gave them two entirely different receptions. The women and minorities were invited to sit down in the front of the room, and Hardy treated them like old friends.
The white males were hurried to the back of the room and ordered to stand on one leg with their hands held out to the side. The men were left to stand that way as Hardy began his session, his tone toward them brusque and impersonal.
Eventually, Hardy allowed the men to compete for the right to sit down in two chairs at the front of the room. The lucky sitters were the first to hop one-legged to the chairs from the back of the room.
But just as the men reached the chairs, Hardy and an assistant took the seats. Finally, Hardy called an end to the exercise.
His intent: Create a scenario reversing a common workplace atmosphere where white males exist comfortably and women and minorities lead what sometimes feels like a precarious existence.
“People can have completely different experiences, and it can be easy to discount or dismiss someone else’s experience when it is not your own,” says Hardy, thought leader and CEO at $104 million asset Southwest Louisiana Credit Union in Lake Charles.
The exercise did make the white males uncomfortable. It also raised emotions and served as a catalyst for two hours of ground-breaking classroom conversation facilitated by Hardy.
And while many of the women and minorities in the room empathized with the plight of the white males, others shared some difficult experiences at credit unions and other organizations.
One woman felt she couldn’t leave work to pick up her children for fear of looking inferior to her male counterparts. Another left an organization for a different job because she couldn’t move into management within a male-dominated organization.
African-American men and woman discussed how they had to swallow their anger or “stay prayerful” to move forward each day in the face of institutionalized discrimination.
“As in the exercise, when women and minorities get close to that seat, it’s often taken away from them,” Hardy says.
He says credit unions must work to create the “relational equity” to have these difficult conversations. “Build a culture of acceptance and appreciation, not just a culture of tolerance. Nobody wants to be just tolerated.”
Along with that should come a culture of learning with an “ongoing desire to learn about differences, even in communities that are not racially diverse,” Hardy says. “Just because you may not have much in terms of representation doesn’t mean you don’t need to have understanding.”