Businesses that made statements in support of the Black community last year are now facing the challenges of translating those words into tangible progress, and the public is watching.
George Floyd’s death on May 25, after then-Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin knelt on Floyd’s neck for more than nine minutes, sparked national outrage and quick promises by CEOs that their workplaces would become more diverse while fostering a greater sense of belonging among under-represented groups.
Those companies now need to expect to be held accountable, says Christina Shareef, who leads diversity, inclusion and belonging at Reddit, the social media platform. Recruits and other stakeholders are demanding results from promises made. “We’re going to start seeing that in real dollars and cents in folks that want to work with us.”
Shareef’s comments came during a recent online panel discussion, Diversity, Equity and Inclusion: Moving the Conversation Forward, sponsored by Salary.com. Shareef joined Josetta Jones, chief diversity officer at Chevron, and Kyle Stapleton, senior manager of culture and experience at WarnerMedia Studios in Atlanta. Employment attorney Heather Bussing moderated.
The task is fraught with difficulties – including awkward conversations, discomfort, fear and a new awareness of unconscious bias – but it’s critically important, not only because it’s the right thing to do, but also because the future of the business depends upon it. “If you can’t get to some equitable solution, you run the risk of your organization failing,” Jones says.
The burden of making the workplace more diverse is on the privileged, says Stapleton, who describes himself as a straight, tall, white guy. “If you look like me, dammit, you should be doing this work every day.” Yes, mistakes will be made. But he adds, “The privilege to meet the moment at a time like this is so historical and incredible, how can you not be overjoyed and pumped to want to be part of that?”
The experts in diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI), whose companies are successfully tackling the issue, shared their insights on potential obstacles, lessons learned and ideas business leaders can apply in their own workplaces. Here are some do’s and don’ts.
- Ask questions: At Chevron, Jones says DEI team members simply asked staff if they feel included. Good and bad feedback revealed opportunities to understand that people come to work with their entire lifetime of experiences with them.
- Investigate constantly: Stapleton says older, established companies may have an “institutional plaque buildup” of its history to overcome, although startups have problems too. Frequently re-examine who you are and who you want to be as a company.
- Think of inclusion as infrastructure: Build a welcoming atmosphere before new team members join the organization, Shareef advises. That “safe space” will encourage professionals to stay at the company and mixing up the language may help leaders see things in a new way.
- Be strategic – not personal – to advance DEI: Jones notes that when a leadership team is all-white, it’s important to find out what they want to accomplish and suggest in a consultative way, for example, three ways to get to the end goal. Perhaps leaders don’t see that their current actions are not leading them to the outcome they desire.
- Agree on a vocabulary of success – Stapleton says companies need to make a real commitment by setting goals and deadlines, and investing the appropriate time and money into the effort. He advises using both hard metrics, like retention of under-represented groups, and soft metrics, such as belonging or ‘how does it feel’ to work here.
- Show willingness to pivot – “We can talk about the gaps all day, but if you’re not willing to pivot, you’ll stay in the gap,” Shareef says.
- Get defensive: Stapleton says that leaders who are called out for microaggressions – indirect, subtle or unintentional discrimination – should acknowledge the courage it took to share those concerns, that mistakes will be made, and that feedback is a gift.
- Stay silent – Alternatively, he adds, a staff member who is offended could consider an opener like, “Got a second to talk about what just happened?” Saying nothing just perpetuates the problem.
- Proceed without support from top leader: “The leader of the leaders has to role model the behavior you want to see,” Stapleton notes.
- Exclude leaders from firm DEI conversations: Some think that the presence of leaders will create an unwillingness to share. That’s why Shareef says leaders should listen, support and encourage conversation without being overbearing.
- Overlook the possibilities: Think about markets you could enter if you had more diverse perspectives on your teams, Shareef notes, and consider hiring to fill those gaps.
- Let fear stop you – “White people are terrified of doing it wrong, and they will, because that’s part of learning,” says Bussing.
Most importantly, the panelists urged, is simply to start somewhere. “Start by just doing it with the intention of having open conversations, state that intention,” Shareef says. “People are a lot more forgiving than you would think that they are.”