Many organizations have publicly pledged to better weave diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives and programs throughout all levels of the business in order to establish a more supportive, inclusive culture.
However, in order for these programs to be effective, employees must be able to safely and authentically show up and feel safe at work. A critical step DEI subject-matter experts want organizations to take before starting a new initiative or program is to first address racism, discrimination and bias among their workforce — ultimately working toward dismantling systems of oppression and inequality.
“It’s one thing to start a D&I initiative, but if you don’t deal with the issue of systemic racism, then it’s going to be difficult to get to that place where people are showing up 100 percent ready to give you everything that they have so you can continue to build the company that you’ve envisioned yourself,” says Risha Grant, an international diversity and inclusion expert, author and speaker.
Systemic racism plagues workplaces, and has for some time. Grant explains that in order for people to be able to really show up at work, and in order to see all the benefits that diversity and inclusion can bring to an organization, that means getting rid of policies that are exclusionary and letting people go who make the workplace a toxic environment.
In the wake of the recent killings of Black Americans and the protests and nationwide calls for change that followed, the demand for experts on anti-racism to visit organizations and for workplace training that covers difficult topics such as racism, bias and discrimination have skyrocketed. On LinkedIn, diversity, inclusion and career strategist Stacey Gordon’s course on unconscious bias has sat on the most-viewed courses list for weeks. Across different industries, employers tackle rude awakenings: oppressive systems, workplace atmospheres and even people; and employees are calling out their employers that discriminate.
People want to work for organizations that are taking a stand against discrimination and actively fighting to dismantle racist or oppressive systems presently in place, or, simply put, organizations that are anti-racist. Anti-racism is “an active and conscious effort to work against multidimensional aspects of racism,” Robert J. Patterson, professor of African American Studies at Georgetown University, told Business Insider in June. And leaders, including those in HR and learning and development, play an increasingly critical role in workplace culture.
“When I first started in HR, we didn’t talk about race. We didn’t talk about politics. We didn’t talk about religion. You steered clear of those things because you didn’t want the conflict,” says Deb Muller, CEO of HR Acuity. “And we realize now that this was not the right approach. Maybe at the time, that’s what worked, but right now, we have to have the conversations. We have to recognize that the people coming to work are bringing their whole selves.”
Muller says leaders need to be ready to start having these conversations in the workplace. These conversations may be difficult, but the point is to learn — to sometimes get it wrong, and to have the chance to correct.
Addressing the ‘BS’
Grant is an expert in confronting bias, including its roots. When doing research for her own book, “That’s BS: How Bias Synapse Disrupts Inclusive Cultures and the Power to Attract Diverse Markets,” Grant came across American neurologist Joseph LeDoux’s book, “The Synaptic Self,” in which he explains that he believes people live their lives within the synapse of their brains. Grant saw this as applicable to the way people understand unconscious bias and the brain’s role in unconscious bias.
“A synapse is how our brain communicates between brain cells, and that happens in one direction — same thing with our biases,” Grant says. “That’s where ‘bias synapse’ comes from.”
It’s also a play on the word “bullshit.”
In her work, Grant advises organizations three steps to confronting bias: identify, own, confront.
Identifying means finding out where the bias originated from. “Most of the time, our biases originate from the people who raised us. It’s an unrecognizable part of our upbringing; we’re living through the past hurts, pains and experiences of the people who raised us. And they teach us, mainly unconsciously, how it is that we’re supposed to treat other people,” she says.
The next step is ownership. “You are saying ‘I own this. I know that this is my issue. I know that this is my problem. I even encourage people to say it out loud because it sounds like the BS that it is,” Grant says. Finally, there’s confrontation. “And then in confronting it, you want to confront it with unconditional love and being intentional.”
The intentionality part is critical. Grant says if you are not being intentional about addressing bias, you will not be inclusive. “Because we are creatures of habit,” she says. “And we feel comfortable around the people who look like us, who think like us. We have to go outside of that and be intentional.”
Grant adds that leaders should be dealing with their own unconscious bias because it’s going to show up in their behavior at work. “We see it in people not being promoted, we see that leadership teams are mostly all-white while the employee base is more diverse. You have to address it yourself so that you know how to lead your team through it.”
A more ‘modern’ type of training
Addressing unconscious bias and the effects of microaggressions — subtle slights, insults or indignities — is an ongoing challenge, says Andrew Rawson, chief learning officer of training and compliance company Traliant.
Rawson says there has been an incredible demand for a more “modern” type of diversity training — one that is more dedicated to addressing race, racism and bias.
Training can hold up a mirror and encourage employees and managers to think about difficult and uncomfortable topics like racism, and reflect upon their own attitudes and behaviors, according to Rawson. It can also help individuals gain a deeper understanding of how different forms of unconscious bias and microaggressions affect people, workplace culture and business decisions, and some constructive ways to stop it or counter it.
“We are just one part of an integrated solution,” Rawson says. “And that, I think in terms of a chief learning officer, sometimes when you’ve got a C-level title, you do your most important work outside of your area of expertise. The most important thing I think a CLO can do in helping the organization combat racism is to make sure that training is just an integral part of a larger effort.”
In June, Traliant modified their D&I training course to include a new discussion that addresses racism and racial identity. The organization has seen inquiries in their D&I training suite increase by 10x per week.
Organizations like Traliant also rose to meet the massive demand for anti-harassment courses and training, a subsequent result of the #MeToo movement and new attitudes surrounding how to address workplace harassment, as well as several states passing laws on mandatory training in the past few years.
To organizations, anti-harassment training felt like it was something they simply needed to catch back up on that they had been putting off, Rawson says. But this time, in regards to addressing racism, discrimination and bias, this is not the case.
“I think that now, there’s this feeling that companies have really missed the boat,” he says. “We are trying to overcome deep-seeded, psychological prejudices that many of us are not even aware we have.”
When it comes to traditional DEI in the workplace, many people will start asking questions like: How many people on your board are people of color? How many people have gone through training? But in order to better address issues like racism, discrimination and bias, these questions do a surface-level amount of work. Muller says there has not been enough emphasis on looking at the employment experience.
Trends in employee performance, engagement, policy violation or misconduct can be identified, tracked and pulled from workplace data and metrics, which can help leaders better understand any systemic issues their organization could be facing, Muller says.
“What happens when there’s an employee issue? What happens once there’s an allegation in the workplace?” she says. “[When] something happens, how are we treating that person? Is there bias in how we’re treating them? But even more so, what can we learn from the aggregate information?”
Muller explains that looking at this information through this type of lens can help identify whether biased behavior or racial discrimination may be a workplace trend.
“This is how we’re going to measure our improvement,” she says. “This is how we’re really going to inspect what we expect from our employees, and really be willing to go a little bit deeper and really look at the data on a micro-level with these types of incidents that go on — these deviations from what’s expected in the workplace — rather than just saying, ‘Hey, we hired three Black people, good for us.’ That’s great, except if their experience isn’t good when they get there.”
According to HR Acuity’s annual benchmarking report that was released following the start of the #MeToo movement, they saw a 48 percent increase in discrimination claims. Muller says they can expect the same trend in discrimination claims this year following social unrest.
Sharing this data about employee relations with employees also shows accountability and commitment to improving inclusivity and a positive workplace culture. Muller says this can build trust and demonstrates the changes made from the result of a claim. According to HR Acuity’s fourth annual Employee Relations Benchmark Study, 29 percent of organizations report any type of employee relations statistics to their employees.
People and perspectives
Tools like data and training may be part of a larger DEI initiative, program or effort to change workplace culture.
Ultimately a strong DEI initiative is one that involves people, Grant says.
“They have to have ownership in that initiative. Because there’s always a juxtaposition between what the leadership feels the climate is, and what the employee base feels the climate base is,” she says. “Leadership tends to have a really rosy picture, but when you talk to employees, that may not be the case with them.”
McKinsey & Co. prefaced its May 2020 report “Diversity wins: How inclusion matters” by saying D&I matters “more than ever” in the COVID-19 crisis. According to the report, D&I is a “powerful enabler of business performance. Companies whose leaders welcome diverse talents and include multiple perspectives are likely to emerge from the crisis stronger.”
But in order for everyone to feel welcome, Grant says it’s important to first remember that some of the systems set up in the workplace may not necessarily be designed with everyone in mind.
The system, as it is currently in place, was not designed for everybody to be able to succeed, Grant says. “Overall, everybody, when they talk about the systems that are in place and they say that systems don’t work, that’s not true. They work perfectly. And we’ve seen that over all of these years. But they only work for the people they were designed to work for.”