Ombud's Corner: unexpected turn in the conversation?

Regular informal conversations with colleagues play a very important part in weaving the fabric of team spirit. They allow us to build the working relationships that are vital to the success of our projects and to create an environment of good will that is instrumental in averting potential conflict or crises. However, sometimes they can come with unexpected surprises…


Eric and his colleagues always meet on Monday mornings to have coffee together, before starting the working week. This is a very privileged moment for the team when there are no formal barriers or professional concerns: Mary may talk about a film that she saw at the weekend, Eric often goes hiking in the Jura with his friend Stefan, Hans has always got a story about his son’s prowess on the school football team and occasionally there is a bit of special news such as Louisa’s recent marriage, Pierre’s baby’s christening or Claude’s daughter’s graduation…

Last week was no exception to this habit, except that they met on Tuesday morning after the long Whitsun weekend, and, in the midst of all the usual conversation, Eric said he had some good news to share with them all:

“Stefan and I got engaged last weekend – we are moving into a flat together next week.”

For a moment there was complete silence – it seemed as if nobody knew what to say – and then Mary congratulated Eric and the others hastily did the same. But the mood in the group seemed to have changed, and after a few more minutes of desultory conversation, when Eric left to return to his lab, the conversation went back to his unexpected announcement.

“It's not really so surprising, is it?” said Mary. “After all, he often talked about Stefan.”

“But why do we need to know that he is gay? asked Louisa. “That’s his personal business after all.”

“Yes, said Claude, “that is his private life – we should not mix private life with work” while Pierre nodded in agreement. 

“But, wait a minute, said Hans. “Is Eric’s news any different from what we usually talk about over coffee?”

There was silence as the group reflected on this question. It was true that they enjoyed sharing what they did at the weekends and talking about life in general – that was what helped them to get to know each other and to feel integrated into the team.  But did that hold true for everyone in the team? Did everyone feel included and equally able to be open and accepted in the group?

Conversations with colleagues are indeed an important thread in the fabric that holds teams together. However, by the same token they can sometimes lead to situations where the majority share what they have in common, thereby excluding minority members, albeit unintentionally. Different languages, different cultures, different habits or preferences are just some of the ways in which we may feel left out or isolated and in the longer term this may lead to an inability to integrate and contribute fully to the team.

Yet these differences represent one of our core Organizational values and diversity is an integral part of our mission. While the CERN Diversity Office helps to drive our commitment to this through various activities aimed at promoting mutual respect and inclusiveness, it remains up to each one of us to make this a living reality.

So the next time the conversation at the coffee table takes an unexpected turn, and one of our colleagues chooses to share something like this with us, let us welcome this as an example of our rich and diverse organizational identity.

"What we have to do... is to find a way to celebrate our diversity
and debate our differences without fracturing our communities.

Hillary Rodham Clinton, former U.S. Secretary of State


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by Sudeshna Datta-Cockerill