After the police killing of George Floyd, the revived momentum of the Black Lives Matter movement, and the many, many pledges made by managers reaffirming their commitment to diversity and inclusion, Erin Thomas had a message for corporate leaders: be bolder.
Thomas, the head of diversity, inclusion, and belonging at the freelancing platform Upwork, argued in a piece for Quartz at Work that “[p]opular diversity practices (like the Rooney Rule or bias training) often trend because they’re quick, easy, relatively low-cost, and feel like progress. But they often fail to benefit—and can even be harmful to—employees or job candidates from marginalized groups.”
It is not enough anymore to be well-meaning. Our best practices need to be better.
To that end, we scoured Quartz at Work’s recent coverage of the topic and rounded up some of the freshest thinking we could find. But we share all of this with an important caveat. As Thomas wrote in her July article, we should “[r]esist the temptation to copy and paste other organizations’ programs and policies. Instead, focus your efforts on a broader strategy designed to disrupt the organizational systems and habits that perpetuate your own company’s version of workplace inequity.”
So we hope these ideas will give you a new perspective on some very old dynamics, inspire you to try new approaches, and save you from making mistakes made by others. But really moving the needle on diversity and inclusion? Ultimately, that’s up to you.
1. Employ the principles of peace building
The nonprofit Search for Common Ground helps resolve conflicts between political or religious factions in dozens of countries. Its philosophy also has workplace applications, as Rajendra Mulmi found at first hand. When he first ran the group’s outpost in Nigeria, Muslims, despite making up nearly half the population of the country, accounted for less than 8% of Search for Common Ground’s local staff. He eventually got that figure above 30%. How did he do it?
By understanding the differences: The office had one expat manager who often socialized with his team over beers at the end of the day. The Muslims in the group, who did not drink, didn’t participate. Mulmi advised finding another, more inclusive activity, but the manager was unsure what other kinds of outings would appeal to the Muslims on his team. Mulmi’s response? “Ask.” Without that kind of intelligence gathering, it’s hard to know people’s preferences about anything, especially if they come from places or backgrounds other than your own.
By acting on the commonalities: Even something as innocuous as lunch had a way of revealing the divisions between employees from Nigeria’s majority-Christian south and majority-Muslim north. Each typically went to the restaurants serving their preferred regional food. What they had in common, though, was that they all ate lunch—so after an open discussion about it, the employees decided to eat in the office together a couple of times a week. Everyone could bring in the food they liked and still spend time together.
There are other principles of conflict resolution that managers can try in a business setting. Find more details here.
2. Ditch the unconscious-bias training
This is a controversial one, particularly in the wake of the Trump administration’s order against diversity education at federal agencies and government contractors that “promote[s] race or sex stereotyping or scapegoating.” (The order already is being challenged in court.) But there are some very good arguments against this kind of training. For starters, there’s no evidence that it works, and it lets us off the hook for biases we may very well be conscious of.
Randall Tucker, chief inclusion officer at Mastercard, suggests there’s no good way to invite someone to a training session on the topic. “When I hear unconscious bias, it seems like you’ve already made the assumption that I have a problem,” he told Quartz at Work in 2019. “I hear, ‘You have a deficit and now I need to fix you.’” Indeed, it’s a totally different dynamic from the training sessions that companies offer on other core job skills.
There’s another reason Tucker doesn’t like the idea of standalone diversity training: it “others” the issue. He would much rather see diversity training incorporated into everything else that companies train their employees to do.
3. Interrogate your hiring process
There are many pitfalls to recruiting and hiring that can impede your progress on diversity. Here are just a couple of examples of where you might encounter them:
Job postings. Are foreign-language skills really a plus? Any requirement or nice-to-have that you list is a potential knock-out question for candidates. But if it isn’t necessary for success in the role, don’t list it—there are better ways to screen out the nonstarters.
Interviews. These should be standardized so that the candidates’ answers can be easily compared. Ask questions that correlate to the specific traits or skills needed for success in the role. It takes mere seconds to size up a candidate in ways that can needlessly narrow the field, so rely on scorecards and rubrics rather than “vibe.”
4. Elevate diversity from “extracurricular” status
A recent Center for Talent Innovation survey of 2,000 white, straight, cisgender American men with white-collar jobs had some heartening news. A full 90% said they thought diversity and inclusion in the workplace was somewhat or very important.
Yet even among those who described it as “very important,” only 56% said they were actively supporting diversity and inclusion at their companies. The most common reason they gave for not being more involved: “I’m too busy.” As one respondent explained, “The ability to just get regular work done is so hard that there’s rarely interest or time to work on the ‘higher order’ tasks that promote a healthy culture.”
It’s not just men who sideline themselves from these kinds of efforts. A senior executive in the finance industry told me several years ago that she had just gotten involved in the women’s network at her firm at her company’s request, and it was an awakening. At her previous employer, she had always declined such invitations—not because she didn’t support the mission but because she had a huge job and two kids and little if any time for herself. (It’s a regrettable fact for many women that their careers get more demanding just at the time that their home lives do, too.) Once she saw the effect that her presence had on the other women in the group, she kept at it. But she might never have gotten involved without the pressure, subtle as it may have been, from her new boss.
There are several ways that companies can make diversity and inclusion efforts a core part of people’s day jobs. Articulate the expectations in your job postings and job descriptions. Pay people, as Twitter now does, for leading employee resource groups that represent traditionally marginalized groups. Tie bonuses to diversity goals. There’s no one-size-fits-all answer here, but we all can do a better job of making diversity a genuine business priority and communicating its importance.
5. Don’t let your own wokeness fool you
If you’ve read this far, chances are that you’re a solid advocate for inclusion and committed to solving the systemic and extrinsic issues that have kept much of the business world from meeting its diversity goals to date. Congratulations—but don’t get too satisfied with yourself. There are still plenty of ways in which your decisions as a leader can go awry.
You might talk about systemic issues in a way that suggests you don’t take sufficient responsibility for them (just ask Wells Fargo CEO Charlie Scharf). You might, in your eagerness to share your values with the world—or in a play for public relations’ sake—”front” your diverse employees (that is, use them in a craven photo opp while waiting for your company’s actual diversity to catch up to your stated goals).
Even as a woke person, you’re still a person, meaning you’re likely to have blind spots that will at some point become problematic.
As a new manager, Grammarly’s Celeste Mora figured she would make mistakes but not when it came to inclusion. She had long been a fierce advocate for workplace inclusiveness, as part of both her moral makeup and her queer identity.
Fast forward to the Covid-19 lockdowns. Eager to check in with the team and maintain a semblance of the in-person communication she had always thrived on, she planned lots of video chats. “It turned out these were sometimes non-inclusive,” she observed. “Caregivers felt increased stress to be present on camera while being pressed by other responsibilities. Introverts on my team became overwhelmed. As someone who knows what it feels like to be different, it was painful to realize that I had alienated people.”
Ready for more ideas? Check out Quartz’s field guide to building an antiracist company, watch the replays of our similarly themed workshops (we did one in June 2020 and one in August 2020), and look for our ongoing coverage in Quartz at Work’s “Power in Progress” obsession.