2020 saw a new America arise and awaken. Social injustice, namely racism, has been in the veins of the United States since its founding. Only recently, however, have the American people realized the systemic and persistent nature of this issue. When the harrowing murder of George Floyd happened, our consciousness shifted into overdrive. Several thought pieces, essays, commentary, and social dialogues have been created that do an excellent job of explaining the issue at hand (in short: this country has not exactly been a place to thrive if you’re not a white male). As a nation, we seem to better understand now that something must be done to help close the equity gap.
The recent dialogue around racism sparked something in the American psyche that quite quickly reached companies and organizations. The outcry for justice caused some of America’s biggest brands to look inward and ask: “What are we doing to ensure all of our stakeholders know we care about this?” Edelman Trust published a piece, A Universal Demand For Change, which showed that consumers, employees, and the American public believe that businesses have a “moral obligation” to do something. That “something” for many companies was to increase its focus on Race, Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion (REDI).
Some companies have made important strides such as team-building events and hiring Chief Diversity Officers to their executive teams to oversee inclusion efforts. It seems like the summer of 2020 was a boon for REDI consultants, with brands scrambling to get “woke”. Colleagues in this space were both encouraged by this newfound interest in doing the work (“the work” being taking a hard look at your company, being honest with your practices, and making potentially radical adjustments) but also saddened by the fact that it took such a terrible sequence of events for people to care.
Despite heightened visibility of the issue, a concerning lack of diversity in the workplace remains (especially in tech), ushering in what many in 2021 have called the “Great Resignation”. This voluntary mass exodus has seen many workers leaving their jobs in hopes of finding more inclusive opportunities elsewhere, providing many companies the chance to attract talent with sincere REDI efforts.
The demand is clearly there, but for many leaders (in small companies especially), it’s hard to know where to start. I have seen startups and ventures struggle with wanting to do this right but not knowing how to create an effective framework.
With that, I thought it would be helpful to share my thoughts (as a passionate practitioner) on practical approaches to introducing REDI into your organization. Keep in mind that the point is not to sell you on REDI for your organization (trust me, you need to begin to figure out your next steps), but to help you understand the process to make it painless. See step-by-step below:
· Ask Yourself Why — For any culture shift to be successful, you must first reflect on why you’re doing it. Consider:
o Why is this important for your company and customers right now?
o Why is this a top priority?
o Why should you care about being a more inclusive organization?
o Why does diversity mean better outcomes for you?
o Why is preaching equity so empowering to your employees?
Asking these questions of everyone in the organization will help you know if you are ready to do what is required to create change. What is required, by the way, includes conversations about race, discrimination, and bias.
· Listen — It is important that everyone have a voice in the conversation. When asking the tough “why” questions, listen to employees from the top down and everyone in between to truly hear what they are saying. Create space for people to be open, vulnerable, and candid and you will find illuminating insights on how they feel about the topic and your organization’s approach. Make sure you make your people feel heard. This deep listening will be paramount to understanding if you’re on the right track and perhaps more importantly, if your company is ready.
· Assess Readiness — After asking the challenging questions and listening to all of your company’s stakeholders, it will be up to the leaders to make a decision on readiness. Many organizations know that they have to increase diversity and be more inclusive but they often learn that there is deep work to do before they can get started. You might think you’re ready but until you listen (hear a theme here) you can’t truly know and in my view, you have to start out strong. So, if this is not the right time and there’s more work to be done to get everyone aligned, take the time to do that work. There are plenty of professionals with the expertise to help you in these situations, so don’t be discouraged. You have to meet people where they are and if your organization isn’t just quite “there” yet, having someone step in to help is the best practice. On the other hand, if you feel like you are ready for it, then it’s time to create the framework.
· Recruit — Having the right team in place, those who are committed to culture change, is imperative. C-Suite leadership is non-negotiable. It signals to the organization that the company is truly committed. Additionally, the initiative(s) should be helmed by employees in every department and at every level. The goal is to put together a diverse set of people who will:
o Steer and guide the conversation
o Be open and honest
o Push back when necessary
o Ask the tough questions.
This work is not for the faint of heart and its important to assemble a group that can work respectfully and constructively, but challenge each other’s beliefs with the ultimate goal of driving the company forward in REDI.
· Set Goals — You know you want to be a diverse and inclusive brand; you have all the right people and you know that you are ready. So what do you actually want to achieve? Is it diversifying recruitment practices? Is it doubling down on inclusive policies? Is it ensuring that minoritized employees have intentional spaces of their own? There’s a long list of ways you can work towards a more progressive workplace and brand so build consensus on what those milestones might be.
· Create a Plan — With goals identified, you can now start to co-create a plan of action. Creating committees, employee resource groups, and celebration days are all options. You will have to stay true to your culture and brand and formulate a framework to determine what initiatives and activities will lead to the changes you want. Again, that there are practitioners, professionals, and experts who do this day in and day out … hire them.
· Invest — I always like to remind the people leading these initiatives that there is no short-term solution, there is no quick fix, and this is work that requires investment. Investment of time and investment of resources. That plan you created? It is going to take time away from your core business but ultimately strengthen it. It is also going to cost money. Depending on your size and budget and composition, it might make sense to devote a full-time employee to spearheading these efforts and it might make sense to hire outside counsel. Whatever it might be, it is going to take investment on your part.
The above represents an elementary framework that helps you think about how to start approaching the conversation, practically.
Once you start it is also important to make sure you approach these conversations, discussions, and initiatives with mercy and grace. Remember: you are going to mess up, you are going to say the wrong thing, you are going to stumble and that’s okay because everything is complicated. As I noted above, you will also meet everyone where they are. We all come at this with different backgrounds and experiences. What might seem like a no-brainer to you may seem radical to the person next to you. Realize that. Embrace that. Work to bridge the divide. (which only makes it easier moving forward).
Also, when the work starts, it’s important to make sure that you don’t make anything mandatory. I heard a great thought around this which is to encourage but not enforce. At the end of the day you want to make sure that all voices are heard and if people aren’t comfortable, it’s more beneficial to understand why than force them to participate.
By reading this lengthy piece it’s clear that you are dedicated to REDI. I hope that you realize that the launch isn’t as daunting as you might think. Name the issue. Listen to everyone. Honor the process.