Forget creating cool vibes with trendy office furniture and Ping-Pong tables. Forget the happy hours of yesteryear or scheduling an ice cream social. While these perks are fun and offer a respite from day-to-day tasks, today’s workplace (whether virtual or in person) demands much deeper engagement.
Employees hold the upper hand for the first time in modern history. If they want more money, they’ll find it somewhere else. If they want a better work/life balance, they can find that, too. And after living through the pandemic and social unrest, if they want a work environment that really cares about doing the right thing, that job is just a few clicks away.
Today’s workforce craves not only an environment that fosters meaningful connections but also one that takes on social responsibility. This new landscape makes it imperative for HR to lead innovative, engaging, and socially responsible diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) programs that create a safe, warm, and welcoming environment across the organization.
Most DEI initiatives are delivered through a top-down approach. Instead, we opted for an organic no-idea-is-a-bad-idea approach that allowed us to get candid feedback and prioritize which programs to develop. Starting in 2020, we held a companywide hackathon event to get a direct understanding of how we can address and support the needs of our team members. We wanted to encourage teams to “hack” ways that would help us create the most inclusive environment.
As a result, we were able to mobilize our leadership team quickly, create a consensus on priorities, and activate swiftly to develop three DEI programs. We want to share how any organization can implement these programs to better connect with their team and create a more equitable workplace:
Enforce Proper Name Pronunciation and Preferred Pronouns
One of our quick wins was creating proper name pronunciation and preferred pronoun protocols. Our names are embedded in personal, cultural, familial, and historical ties, and above all, they’re a key part of our identity. Our names must be pronounced correctly so we feel respected and dignified.
When people don’t try or ask how to pronounce someone’s name correctly, it sends a message that a person’s identity isn’t important enough to get right. We wanted to develop a culture that prioritizes and sets the expectation for correct name pronunciation.
A second crucial part of our identity and how we interact with each other are our pronouns. Pronoun communication allows us to identify or refer to people as they prefer; in order to respect each other, we can’t make assumptions.
Not only should your company teach employees about the importance of name pronunciation and pronouns by making it a part of the new hire onboarding process, but it can also leverage the tools that are already used every day, like Slack and e-mail signatures. It only takes a minute to have employees add their pronouns and name pronunciation—it’s a quick yet powerful tool any organization can use.
Create a Safe Space for Hard Conversations
One of the most impactful programs we’ve implemented is immersive diversity and inclusion training. Designed to address the root cause of prejudice and inequality, the training focuses on education and introspection to understand deep systemic issues.
We partnered with an external company to host a live 4-week online course for all new hires that explores the inner work of racial healing and incorporates readings from leading racial justice advocates. In addition, it leverages meditation to help employees explore and reflect on the topics and conversations discussed. Post-training, participants join a weekly 1-hour huddle with a small group of colleagues to discuss points outlined in the workbook.
The course helps our employees explore the systemic nature of racism and work toward a better understanding of how it operates in us and through us. This is hard work—it feels very uncomfortable for most participants, and it should because it isn’t easy to understand and overcome prejudice.
While these exercises are especially challenging in a workplace environment because it provokes uncomfortable feelings, it’s crucial that every employee work through this. It sets the tone for our entire organization—that we’re all on a journey to grow and become better humans—and allows us a safe space with a collective and common understanding to have conversations.
To support any DEI program, you and your leadership team must employ empathy throughout your organization. This means being professional without being robotic. One of the ways we accomplish this and care for our culture is by developing communication channels that act as safe spaces where employees feel represented—we call these Affinity Groups.
On your communication channel of choice, the purpose of these groups is to provide a space where people can talk, hang out, and be themselves without fear of judgment. Here are some examples of Slack channels we use:
- #wec → women’s empowerment committee for all who identify as women
- #earthtones → for all who self-identify as black, indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC)
- #rainbow → for members of the LGBTQIA+ community
- #asian-and-pacific-islanders → for all who identify as Asian or Pacific Islanders
Building Programs with Lasting Impacts
While these programs are actionable and are initiatives we hope you can take back to your team, we must share a word of caution: Make sure that any programs or initiatives you administer don’t conflict with policy.
For instance, if you have a women’s empowerment communication channel but don’t offer maternity leave, consider what you must put in place first to ensure your culture and community programs align with your benefits offering.
At the end of the day, we can always do more to enhance our DEI efforts, but we hope that our initiatives inspire you to kick-start programs in your workplace.
Nicole DeBourg-Kahn is Chief People Officer at MSP software provider Syncro, where she’s focused on providing the best environment where team members can grow and feel true fulfillment. She brings to her role more than 20 years of leading HR teams in software, technology, biotech, and retail industries.