Courageous Conversations to Build Communities of Inclusion

Published 14 February 2019

Having conversations about diversity and inclusion takes courage, but leaders can make these more powerful and impactful by paying attention to how they’re leaving people out. If C-Suite executives are intentional in bringing about these conversations and support their chief diversity officers or DI leads, who are placed in these roles to address such a sensitive topic, the divide will be made smaller and make the conversations easier to navigate over time.

Research by McKinsey & Company continues to show that there is a positive correlation between gender, ethnic, and cultural diversity on executive teams and the financial performance and value creation of companies. Furthermore, addressing the challenge of building an inclusive company culture across cultural differences could significantly strengthen organizational effectiveness.[1] Some have wondered whether there needs to be a sense of urgency before companies act.

According to Dr. Anne Phibbs of Strategic Diversity Initiatives, a firm which helps organizations move their diversity and inclusion efforts forward, “we cannot move toward true equity in our workplaces, organizations, and personal relationships until we address historical and institutional inequality.”

Leadership at the forefront of change: Addressing Unconscious Bias at its CORE through our shared experiences!

One thing we cannot do, without really making a conscious effort, is to keep our biases in check. In attending a large number of events on Diversity and Inclusion, in the US, the UK and here in Asia, it was clear that going deep and wide was not the purpose of the programs offered. When sectors bring their leadership together to address bias in the workplace the message needs to be clear. But does that really happen?

Consider, for example, one of my experiences in attending D&I events. I was in a conversation with an expat in Asia who worked in health care technology. Our conversation began with me enquiring about his work and how long he had lived in Asia.

He then asked, “so what do you do?” I very casually said, “I am a university executive with a focus on healthcare, and more specifically, nursing education.” The man who asked the question then exclaimed, “You?”

I had encountered similar responses before, and I simply smiled and moved on with our conversation, subtly educating the gentleman who had asked the question. It was clear that this man was not aware of his own biases, the disbelief—possibly operating on two levels—that a woman, and a black woman at that, could serve in such a professional role seemed to baffle him. The irony was not lost on me that here we were at a diversity and inclusion conference, and one of the workshops was on Unconscious Bias.

Unconscious bias training has been studied over the past two decades. A significant expanse of research shows that, if conducted correctly within organizations, it can help to minimize discrimination and create fairer, more inclusive, and competitively healthier workplaces. Moreover, such training can positively impact the way we interact with each other and conduct business across the globe. It is important for all members of an organization to participate in unconscious bias training.

Take for example the experiences of Carin Taylor who joined Workday in December 2017 as its Chief Diversity Officer. In her role at Workday, she begins her sessions using icebreakers where she openly sheds light on her personal experiences, including reactions she has gotten when travelling throughout Asia. For example, while visiting China she shared the experience she had with individuals who–perhaps never having seen someone with her skin colour before–“stopped and stared,” “touched” her skin, and “even asked to take photographs” with her. These experiences have piqued Taylor’s own curiosity encouraging her to start conversations with team leaders and other employees about their own experiences[2].

Where do we go from here? The example of the Giant Sequoias

It is understandable that there are challenges when going deep and wide, as we have experienced when building relationships within our own families. But that is precisely the point for growth, development, and inclusion–not exclusion–to take place. Take, for example, Giant Sequoias which could have a circumference of 103 feet (31 m) and soar 275 feet (84 m). The biggest Sequoia, which is believed to be about 2,200 years old, is called “General Sherman,” and it stands tall in the Sequoia National Park in California, and it’s still growing[3].

Companies would like to enjoy such giant performance outcomes, yet it is clear that many of them are not consciously ready and willing to make the investment of facing the challenges it will take to attain them.

The severe weather conditions (rainstorms, high winds, fires, floods, snow and ice) and pruning are what have made the Sequoias the giants they are today. Sequoias-like Diversity and Inclusion, and the benefits of unconscious bias training (and other training focused on bridging gaps between and among people)-have been studied far and wide and did not obtain their stature from embracing superficial weather conditions such as an occasional light drizzle. No, they endured and have earned the recognition they have today as giants. Likewise, companies that have a “Best Place to Work” stamp, do not grow and sustain deep roots from having superficial conversations in the boardroom and on teams. Let us bring some of those healthier boardroom and family behaviors and resources, unconscious bias training, and other types of training into the larger workplace to address Diversity, Inclusion and Belonging.

What is needed: Some Recommendations

As companies strive to build more inclusive workplaces, they must continue to innovate and set the tone at all levels of leadership which stresses the importance of D&I while building a sense of belonging for all stakeholders (i.e., from the CEO to the Janitor).

  • Develop and implement programs that go deeper (use the power of employee resource groups (ERGs) to engage their members in creating these programs), cultivating an environment of inclusion
  • Improve standards for search and selection committees, recruiting and hiring to minimize bias (e.g., Airbnb ensures that women and men are progressing through their employee pipeline at similar rates[4])
  • Provide mandatory training about unconscious bias to every person involved in hiring and to every new employee and state clearly that the environment is one of inclusion as the standard, by which the company operates
  • In hiring, include a panel that spans departments/teams to provide diversity in gender, religion, ethnic groups, LGBTQI, disability, veterans, age, etc.
  • In addition to ERGs, create opportunities to develop partnerships with others in the industry for mentorship programs to enhance leadership skills across diverse talent pool.

[1] Hunt, V., Prince S., Dixon-Fyle S. and Yee L. (2018, January), Delivering through diversity. McKinsey & Company.

[2] Hayes Weier, Mary (2018, October), Celebrating Our Differences with Workday’s Chief Diversity Officer Carin Taylor.

[3] The General Sherman Tree, Visit California

[4] Women in the Workplace 2018, p. 46. LeanIn.Org and McKinsey & Company.

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