Business leaders in the field of diversity, inclusion and equity think outside the box, envision what could be and inspire others to follow. In short, they make things happen. All three elements are building blocks, and the language used to describe and implement them constantly evolve as our knowledge base grows. The journey is both individual and organizational, with many layers between our personal understanding and the economic, social and political systems in which we live and about which we are largely unaware.
For example, numerous studies point to disparities women and minorities face in terms of occupation, salary and opportunity for advancement in the workplace. Yet the needle towards equity has been slow to move largely because organizations have yet to fully own the problem. The reasons are many, partly because this is hard work requiring courage and emotional grit to become self-aware and turn awareness into action. Sharing one’s vulnerability is a function of integrity, a key element of leadership and accountability. Whether supervisor, department head, manager or executive, leaders are found the workplace and play a significant role in moving the needle forward.
My first awareness of difference (Diversity) came early in life. Raised on a small farm, we were taught that all life had value. When a baby chick was lame, or the littlest of piglets was being pushed aside, into the kitchen they would come. Placed in a cardboard box by the wood stove, the new arrival would be communally cared for by the whole family until they were strong enough to return to their natural environment.
That lesson became clear to me as an eight-year-old when the school bus brought us to a brand-new school that September. As we eagerly ran towards the building, I noticed a small van parked nearby with children my age looking longingly towards us. I was told they were ‘different’ and that they would be bused to a self-contained building far from us. I instinctively knew this was an injustice. Children can tell when things aren’t right, and will readily protest until silenced by adults. Years later, I became a special education teacher and a strong advocate for integrated classrooms and full inclusion where children of differing abilities could share their gifts and talents with one another.
Diversity means how we are alike and how we are different. We tend to gravitate toward those who are like us because it’s easier to make a connection. Yet it is the differences of identity, life experience, language, culture, faith, ability and sexuality that enrich us, and bring creativity and innovation to the team when problem solving and reaching for new markets. At the same time, we celebrate a shared company vision and values. Diversity demographics provide a window to compare how well the workplace mirrors the diversity of the communities around us and the markets we wish to reach.
Inclusion invites us to go further and deeper. We take pride in knowing that diversity in the organization is on par with regional or national statistics. Yet a closer look can yield important information as to the distribution of those demographics. Are certain groups relegated to entry level positions, kept from decision-making, or silenced for their insights and contributions? Are career paths and upward mobility opportunities encouraged for other groups whether conscious or not?
Climate surveys and exit interviews are important ways to measure employee satisfaction and build on suggestions for improvement. They also provide management with valuable data regarding the on-boarding process, opportunities for development, the need for employee affinity groups, and the success rate of retaining an engaged, valued and productive workforce.
As a young gay professional, it took time and discernment to assess how my sexuality might impact my effectiveness and value as a supervisor. Subtle cues about which family photos were appropriate at work, what conversation topics prevailed in the break room, and whether others were open about their sexuality were determinants as to whether I’d come out. Once I realized that being authentic in the workplace was more important than hiding such an important part of my identity, coming out became a reality some 40 years ago. I then became a role model for others facing similar decisions.
Equity challenges us to re-examine current practice from the bottom up as well as top down. Company policies ensure standard practice and uniformity in management as organizations grow and take on complex functions. Pay rates for women performing the same job functions as men deserve equal treatment. But there is a caution in assuming that equity means treating everyone alike. It is expected that during the onboarding process, a new hire’s strengths and skill sets be examined based on experience, education and job requirements. A uniquely tailored system of supports is provided to ensure success and accountability on everyone’s part. Periodic evaluations not only ensure job requirements are met, but are powerful motivators to encourage job growth and advancement opportunities by matching organizational needs and strategic goals with the particular assets the employee brings to the position.
(Diversity), inclusion and equity initiatives require participation at every level of the organization, recognizing that people operate at different stages along the continuum. Encouraging employees to be and bring their authentic selves to the job are best modeled by leaders and managers alike. Sharing personal stories of challenge, difficulty and success reveal our humanness and approachability. They create safety for others to take risks, try new ideas and develop team cohesion. For example, a CEO speaks openly about a mental health challenge at a vulnerable period of life. A manager reveals what it was like to be raised by a single parent during difficult times. A department head offers support and deep listening for an employee experiencing the recent loss of a loved one.
Opening ourselves to the experiences of others, both like and different from our own, brings wisdom and compassion. Such knowledge, aligned with emotional understanding, produce work environments where people get results by working effectively together.
This article appeared in the August 10, 2018 issue of the Rochester Business Journal