The Black Lives Matter movement has brought a heightened awareness to systemic and institutional racism, and to the implicit personal biases that impact the workplace in far-reaching ways.
By now, it has become clear that active anti-racism measures are critical to bring about much-needed change in the corporate world. To infuse diversity, equity and inclusion into an organization’s culture, leaders must commit to a long-term plan of action and ongoing, frank dialogue with their people.
Create a ‘see something, say something’ policy.
If you have ever spent any time in New York City and commuted via the subway, you’ve heard about the infamous ‘See Something, Say Something’ campaign. This message was developed by the Department of Homeland Security in 2010 to help civilians come forward to law enforcement if they witnessed suspicious activity.
That being said, we encourage leaders to adopt a similar philosophy toward creating a culture of diversity, equity and inclusion. Talking about these issues may feel uncomfortable at first, but as leaders, we have to be courageous enough to foster an environment where ‘call-outs’ on workplace microaggressions and counterproductive behaviors are encouraged. If we don’t step up and express when a phrase or a decision was unfair or racist, then we can’t move forward and make better choices.
Insist on a culture of transparent leadership.
Consider conducting an internal survey of your employees to ask them how they would rate leadership’s authenticity and transparency regarding diversity issues. If the results are less than stellar, it’s time to make improvements.
It’s important for companies to recognize the ongoing work that needs to be done in the area of diversity, equity and inclusion. Acknowledging where you are on your journey, including progress you’ve made and where there’s still room to improve, builds trust, courage and buy-in. This must be non-negotiable for all senior executives because authenticity and transparency starts at the top.
Include voices from all levels of the organization, but make sure the c-suite takes the lead.
In addition to courage and transparency, leaders need to include all voices as part of the discussion and allow constructive criticism into the conversation about company culture. It also means asking your team members for their opinions about how to adopt diversity, equity and inclusion best practices and how to communicate them effectively.
This work can — and should! — be done at all levels. To make a real long-term impact, this work needs to be led from the top.
Hold people accountable, even the likeable ones.
One of the biggest mistakes many professionals make is trusting heart over mind.
Here’s a great example: You have a high-performing, senior level employee who has been with the company for a decade. Though your colleague is generally liked by others, they sometimes make comments that are racist or disrespectful in nature. Rather than addressing these microaggressions, you gloss over these incidents, giving your colleague the benefit of the doubt and assuming they have no malicious intentions. By not asking them to be more empathetic and self-aware, you are in fact reinforcing non-inclusive behavior patterns, which can have a damaging ripple effect throughout the organization.
Create a safe space for healthy dialogue.
Schedule regular events that focus solely on discussions around diversity, equity and inclusion in the workplace. Give employees the space to share their experiences, and work together to create diversity, equity and inclusion best practices that can benefit the entire company.
Perhaps take a welcoming approach, such as a ‘Dessert + Discourse’ session, to minimize the pressure on participants and encourage attendance.
Make reference materials available.
In the heat of the Black Lives Matter movement in the summer of 2020, some organizations gave their employees pivotal, impactful books, like “White Fragility,” and provided a list of anti-racism resource materials for their people.
Reference materials like these shouldn’t be a one-time show of solidarity with the movement. Rather, they should be part of a running, living list that employees can turn to when they want to continue learning. It can be something simple (and inexpensive), curated by the staff, or it could be a budget expenditure where the company book club focuses on these matters for a few months. The list should be updated frequently and include the latest thinking via a variety of media, including podcasts, articles, books and more. Ideally, managers can host follow-up discussion groups with their teams about the reading and research they are doing.
Move beyond data points.
On paper, many companies appear to be doing well in their diversity efforts, with increasing numbers of traditionally marginalized community members in leadership positions, and a broader range of representation throughout the organization.
But the truth is, employee experience may not match up to corporate data points, and many minority employees are still lagging in pay equity, opportunity and authority. In other words, the data can make a company appear to be much more accepting than it truly is.
“I use the word ‘diversity’ on purpose because diversity is the easiest to manipulate,” said one industry expert. “True equity and inclusion require more action and ideally more authenticity.”
Do the hard work by assessing employee experience across the entire talent life cycle, from recruitment through retirement. Get honest feedback directly from your people so you can address the real experiences and opportunities available to employees from traditionally underrepresented groups.
Don’t forget your external stakeholders.
Even if you don’t have formal diversity partnering guidelines in place, at a minimum, you should conduct a quick cultural competency audit among your business partners before you contract with them, to ensure that their practices are aligned with your values.
Remember that diversity, equity and inclusion best practices should address everyone your company is associated with — from employees to clients and partners, to vendors and beyond.
A cultural competency audit could include things like:
- Evaluating the makeup of your board of directors and advisory groups.
- Proactively seeking and selecting a diverse group of vendors to partner with, and ensuring they also value diversity, equity and inclusion (take note if they are silent).
- Understanding clients’/customers’ histories around inclusion/exclusion and influencing their commitments to diversity, equity and inclusion.
Don’t become a performative ally.
Stay vigilant and aware of your own behaviors. And be on the lookout for leaders who are portraying themselves as an ally to people of color but not actually doing the hard work to be supportive in a meaningful way.
You cannot reach your maximum leadership capabilities when it comes to diversity, equity and inclusion in the workplace with words alone. Although your heart may be in the right place, trust your mind to make a rational and emotionally intelligent course of action regarding how you show up, every day.
The times we are living in are too volatile to create surface, non-sustainable relationships in both our professional and personal lives.
Jayson Council has spent 20 years working to strengthen the social and educational sector through strategic development, DEI, relationship building, philanthropy and the power of opportunity. Today, he leads a consulting practice focused on guiding individuals and institutions through the complex and critical landscape of justice, equality, diversity and inclusion (JEDI); political, corporate and social responsibility (PCSR); and purpose-driven philanthropy. He can be reached at [email protected].