I read an article in a higher-education trade association’s newspaper about a professor was who told he was hired because he was black. I could relate.

When I began my academic career in the late 1980s as a newly minted Ph.D., I interviewed for jobs in higher education. While I had several job offers, I ultimately chose the place where I had received my MBA degree.

Several months after my arrival, one of my colleagues said to me, “You know we only hired you because you are a woman.”

You see, the other six members of the department were men. Given that approximately 50 percent of the marketing majors were women, this guy proceeded to explain to me that they felt like they needed a woman as a role model for female students.

While it’s been 30 years since then, we still hear of situations where people are hired because they help the organization meet some diversity goal. It happens, as it did to the black professor I mentioned earlier.

In many cases, the incoming employee will not be told this is why they were hired. But I think sometimes we just know it, whether anyone says anything or not. I could obviously see that I was the only woman in the room during all of the interviews with my colleagues. I’m guessing the aforementioned black professor probably recognized he had a different skin color than the others in the department.

So how do you handle situations like this, especially if you are the “diversity” hire?

My response to my male colleague when I was told that I was hired because I was a woman? “Well, I guess I have to prove to you that you didn’t make a mistake.” And then I did my very best to be a terrific professor and colleague.

If we embrace the concept of diversity in organizations (and we should!), we need to recognize that someone must be the first hire in a category, be it woman, African-American, gay person. How we include them as one of the team is critical in the hiring process. If they feel needed and welcomed, things will probably go pretty well for everyone. But if they are set apart because of the difference they bring, the organization can expect some challenges.

Will there be people in your workplace who are not welcoming when their new co-worker looks different or has different religious preferences or a different lifestyle than the rest of the employees? Absolutely. What top management and direct supervisors do to address this is key.

Many organizations offer diversity and inclusion training. That’s a start. But on a daily basis, supervisors must address any snarky comments or exclusions. Actions speak louder than words.

I was fortunate in my first academic appointment that I was included. Much of my success in the workplace was due to my attitude. Although a woman, I became one of the guys. I chose to always look professional. I took my role as a model for the female students seriously.

I could have been the drama queen and highlighted the differences, but that’s not who I am. I did have a female colleague in another department—hired several years after me—who made everything about her gender. She set herself apart based on it, and was not the only woman in her department.

Organizations have a responsibility, if they hire for diversity, to have an environment in which those employees can be successful. But a large part of the responsibility for success lies with the employees themselves. Their attitudes make a huge difference.

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Lynne Richardson is the dean of the College of Business at the University of Mary Washington.

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