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by Sarah E. Needleman | March 31, 2009

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Are you the only parent in an office full of singles or a health nut among a group of junk-food snackers?

If you're the odd one out in your workplace for whatever reason, finding a way to mesh with the corporate culture may be important to your on-the-job success.

"People who feel out of place where they work tend to hold back from voicing dissent, volunteering for projects and networking with peers -- all of which is critical for climbing the corporate ladder," says Kelly Crescenti, founder of Successful Networks, a career-consulting firm in Chicago.

Raising the subject of your uniqueness in a group setting may be a good start to improving your comfort level, she says. "If you see the opportunity to do it in a positive way, take advantage," she says. "It will make everyone aware of the fact that you know it's an issue and it won't be that unspoken taboo anymore."

Here are four tips to help fit in at a workplace where you may feel different from everyone else.

1. Find a support group or mentor. When Terica Kindred started at Deloitte Consulting LLP four years ago, she says, she joined the big accounting firm's affinity program for African-American employees. "I was the only new black [recent-graduate] hire, and I wanted to meet people who I could relate to and have an open dialogue with," says the 24-year-old consultant, who works out of the firm's Santa Ana, Calif., office. "I can always interact with other co-workers, but I like the opportunity to interact with people from my culture who understand my background."

Ms. Kindred says she finds it easier to talk to affinity-group members about culture-related issues. "You can ask the kind of questions that you're afraid to ask other people," she says.

If your employer doesn't offer support groups that match your needs, ask how you can start one, says Ms. Crescenti. The effort will demonstrate that you're interested in enhancing your organization's commitment to diversity, she adds. Another option is joining an outside affinity group related to your profession.

You also may be able to gain support from individuals willing to serve as mentors, says Lynn Friedman, clinical psychologist in Bethesda, Md., who specializes in workplace issues. "Seek out someone who has weathered a situation similar to your own or who is sympathetic to the challenges you face," she says.

2. Bond through work. While your personal tastes may differ from your colleagues, chances are good that you share some professional interests, says Jared D. Lock, director of consulting services at Hogan Assessment Systems Inc., a consulting firm and employment-testing publisher in Tulsa, Okla. "What people will typically find is they have similarities between them and their co-workers through their passion for their work," he says.

Finding a connection over work-related issues can serve as a catalyst for uncovering other shared interests, adds Mr. Lock. "Once we find commonalities through work, we will tend to notice the similarities more so than the differences," he says. Focus on building one relationship at a time, he adds. "It's much easier to find a similarity with one person than it is a group," he says. The effort will also better position you to bond with others in your new ally's network, he adds. "You'll become a part of their world."

3. Have an open mind. If you suspect you're being treated poorly because you're different, ask a friend or trusted colleague for his or her view on the matter, says Patricia Latham, an attorney and arbitrator specializing in employment law at Latham & Latham in Washington, D.C. "You want to find out if whatever makes you unique is really the issue, or if it's something else," she says.

Don't always assume the worst because making faulty assumptions about people can limit your network, adds Matt Milligan, a senior human-resources manager in San Jose, Calif., for PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP and strategic leader of the accounting firm's diversity initiative for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender professionals. Mr. Milligan, who is gay, says he once thought a colleague was biased against homosexuals. He learned that wasn't the case when the executive started a conversation with him one afternoon about his initiative, he says. "You never know who is going to be an ally," he says. "Now I have an additional source for business advice that I never thought I had before."

4. Make your uniqueness an asset. "Often people focus only on the fact that they are on the outside," says Vincent R. Brown, co-founder and managing partner in Cincinnati for Global Lead Management Consulting LLC, a diversity consultant. "The key is to identify opportunities to bring that outside in and be seen as valuable."

For example, Mr. Brown says a client, a 30-year-old manager at a large Midwestern retail company, once pointed out how he could help his employer on a marketing tactic aimed at twentysomethings. The manager was one of the firm's youngest employees, most of whom were in their 50s or older, says Mr. Brown. "This individual suggested opportunities they didn't see, which brought him more tightly into the loop," he says.

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Filed Under: Workplace Issues
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