The renewed focus on diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) has come with companywide courses, seminars, and workshops on creating more inclusive workplaces. While “unconscious bias” workshops check the box, what is missing is the commitment from the top. Executive buy-in is critical for progress, but if the unconscious, or conscious, bias is coming from the top, no number of courses and workshops will change how safe or inclusive a workplace feels.
DEI strategy must start from the top to set the tone of what is and is not acceptable in the workplace.
- Executive Team Coaching
Executive teams need continuous coaching on DEI. In boardrooms, the words “Things were different in my day” are often heard to justify racist/sexist behaviors. Having a DEI coach continuously working with a full executive team will help them surface and understand their biases and work through them rather than staying comfortable in their biases. It also helps them understand the critical nuances between different marginalized groups.
The next step is training your team to call in inappropriate activity rather than calling it out.
- Calling In vs. Calling Out
Call-in culture is about creating a dialogue around why something is inappropriate rather than calling someone out in an aggressive manner. Here’s an example: Adam complains that he can’t understand one of the company’s vendors because the vendor is Asian and his accent is too thick. Everyone in the meeting nods in agreement; there are no Asians in the room. While Adam is expressing frustration, allowing negative comments about accents creates a culture that makes it OK to treat people differently because of where they are from.
In a call-out culture, the most senior leader in the room would say, “Adam, that’s racist. You can’t make comments about people’s accents.”
In call-in culture, the most senior leader would say, “Adam, I understand you’re frustrated, but people from different countries have different accents. They also speak another language fluently, and I hope they aren’t as frustrated by us. This is a good time to have a conversation about how we can work past our own frustrations when dealing with anyone different from our expectations.” Then, pull in participation from everyone in the room.
The conversation must be kicked off by the most senior people in the room. It makes everyone aware that this topic matters to senior leadership, and culture in most organizations is set at the top.
- Treating Microaggressions as Aggressions
The Adam example would be considered a “microaggression,” unintentional or subtle discrimination against an underrepresented group. The fascinating thing about a microaggression is that it is still an aggression. And when microaggressions are allowed to build up, a workplace is no longer inclusive or comfortable for members of marginalized communities.
Set an example by treating microaggressions as teachable moments. Take the burden of teachable moments off of underrepresented team members, and demonstrate how to support them. A simple example is: Correct others when they mispronounce a team member’s name. Ethnic names are routinely mispronounced, and often, junior team members are hesitant to correct senior leadership (or clients) about their own names. Making it a point to correct them if they mispronounce someone’s name sets the tone that the company expects respect for everyone at the team—regardless of how “hard” a person’s name is.
- Adding Visible BIPOC Leadership
DEI without representation at the top will almost always feel performative. Create opportunities for visible black, indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) leadership. Give them the title and the opportunities to shine and create impact; don’t expect them to create impact without the title or compensation that would be offered to their white counterparts. When companies add visible leadership from underrepresented communities, it sends a signal that they are living and breathing their DEI mind-set.
- The Role of the CEO
The tone of how to handle calling in, microaggressions, and diversity is set by the full leadership team, but the CEO is the most visible figure that needs to embody this. The CEO has to demonstrate continued commitment to DEI, including: (1) exiting leaders who demonstrate exclusionary behavior and consciously refuse to change that behavior; (2) reinforcing call-in culture; (3) educating himself or herself on nuances; (4) not leaning on the underrepresented leadership to be the “voice” of DEI, and so on.
The bottom line is that DEI initiatives have been around for decades, but there are still deep-rooted issues that prevent inclusive workplaces from being the norm. Company cultures start at the top—and that’s where the commitment to DEI needs to start from, as well.
Benish Shah, Loop & Tie Chief Growth Officer: Benish Shah is an award-winning, industry-agnostic, go-to-market strategist with expertise in taking companies and products to market and growing businesses. Winner of the 2019 Amazing Women in eCommerce Award, Shah is currently the Chief Growth Officer at Loop & Tie. She advises on brand and fundraising strategy for nonprofits and was the winner of Emory University’s Humanitarian Award in 2008. Shah has been profiled in The Guardian and Rank & Style and published in Touro Law Journal,ForbesWomen, the University of Pennsylvania Journal of Law and Social Change, HuffPost, and more. She has a JD from Emory University School of Law and a BA from The George Washington University.