Amri B. Johnson is the author of “Reconstructing Inclusion: Making DEI Accessible, Actionable, and Sustainable.” For more than 20 years, he has been instrumental in helping organizations and their people create extraordinary business outcomes. As CEO/founder of Inclusion Wins, Johnson and a virtual collective of partners converge organizational purpose to create global impact with a lens of inclusion. For more information, please visit inclusionwins.com.
If your company’s focus on diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) seems to be running out of steam, you’re not alone. The summer of 2020 with its Black Lives Matter movement is almost three years in the past, and the zeal that fueled many DEI efforts has tapered off. Meanwhile, the shaky economy, uncertainty of interest rates and inflation have refocused organizations’ priorities on austerity. What’s worse, recent layoffs mean many companies have lost (at least some of) their employees who were very engaged in making their DEI efforts accessible, actionable and sustainable.
Now is the perfect time to reignite your company’s passion for creating real inclusion and belonging.
In times of economic turmoil, DEI is often the first thing to go. It’s usually not a mindful choice; it just happens by default. But inclusion is important no matter the state of the economy, and it needs to be at the center of everything you do, especially when things are uncertain.
Remember, organizations that foster a real sense of belonging (even in difficult times) attract talent and customers. Their employees are engaged, happy and come to work ready to bring their best selves, which is good for them, good for leaders and good for customers. In a tenuous economy, that’s exactly what you want.
So, how do you get back on track? These tips will help you renew your DEI efforts and stay the course no matter what.
Do a quick check-in. Employees are likely feeling just as uneasy these days as senior leadership is. This is a good time to check in with them, see how they are doing and remind them that you want to hear their voices. Do people enjoy coming to work daily? Do they feel free to speak up if they disagree with leadership and coworkers? Are they allowed to share their honest opinions? Everyone, especially employees from historically excluded groups, needs to feel that they will not be punished, interrupted or criticized when speaking up.
True inclusion can happen only when all employees feel safe to share their perspectives. When fear holds people back, they suffer, but so does the organization, because it misses out on their gifts and talents. Extend care and let people explicitly know that you understand their needs and you consider those needs when decisions are being made.
Be sure you’re taking a humanity-centered approach to DEI. True inclusion is not about lifting up any group or identity above others. Rather, focus your efforts on how to best uplift everyone. Of course, you still support employees who hold identities that have been marginalized in the past, such as Black, Latinx, LGBTQIA++, neurodivergent and differently-abled employees. But also recognize that the “us and them” paradigm is harmful and counterproductive, regardless of which people are part of the “out group.”
Recommit to building a culture of curiosity and perspective-taking. Encourage employees to approach inclusion efforts with an open mind and heart. Remind everyone that, while they may not understand the lived experiences of all individuals they work with, all experiences are valid. Encourage them to move forward with curiosity and perspective-taking — especially when they don’t understand or don’t agree. Curiosity helps us seek and be receptive to other points of view. Perspective-taking is an extension of curiosity that allows us to connect by exploring, with care and thoughtful questions, what another person is experiencing. You can’t always relate to what someone is feeling, but you can gain a deeper understanding through listening, along with thoughtfulness and curious questions. When these forces align, employees can begin bridging the differences that may have prevented collaboration and engagement.
Shake things up. Bring people from different “groups” together. To break down stereotypes and biases, foster relationships between people who may otherwise not interact. Focus on an environment of collaboration and ensure that every team is made up of diverse people from varying backgrounds and experiences.
Reeducate everyone on the most common forms of bias. We all have unconscious preferences that can negatively impact our actions and behaviors. Organizations committed to inclusion must educate employees on bias and address ways to prevent bias from negatively impacting individuals or groups. And if it’s been a while since you talked about bias, this is a great time to remind people. It begins with recognition and awareness. When we know that our implicit biases might be influencing our decisions and behaviors, we can become more aware of the assumptions or beliefs driving our actions and build the skills and capabilities that allow us to effectively question and challenge them. One caveat to this is that limiting such education to a single training is incomplete and could actually be counterproductive. Create opportunities to bring awareness and then learn to apply approaches to mitigate the dysfunctional impacts of cognitive biases.
Keep dismantling the meritocracy. Meritocratic-oriented systems are not as fair as they might seem at first glance. In fact, they can be harmful to an organization’s most vulnerable employees. Why? Because the “best” people who rise to the top have often had greater opportunities than those who have historically been underexposed to things that some might take for granted. Top performers are not the only people who deserve to thrive at work. And, who we identify as “top performers” often benefit from being part of in-groups where they have had greater access to information, emerging insights or power.
Meritocracy’s myth resides in the erroneous notion that someone who has historically been advantaged is inherently more advanced than someone with less advantage. Allow everyone to develop and grow.
Reexamine your talent pipeline. Are you hiring and retaining talent from all backgrounds? Be sure to cast a wide net. If you notice that many or most of your employees attended the same category of universities (e.g., your state schools, alma mater of influential leadership, Ivy League schools, etc.), it’s time to branch out. And, of course, make sure you have designed your talent attraction/candidate experience to attract talent from and across a broad spectrum of identities and lived experiences.
It’s especially crucial to look at your talent pipeline if you’ve recently laid off people. Many companies have been focused on increasing underrepresented talent over the last few years, but since layoffs are often done on a “last-in, first-out” basis, these employees may have been the first to be let go. Often, that means their DEI “champions” are gone as well.
The bottom line? Most companies have come a really long way in the last few years, and it would be a shame to lose the progress they’ve made.
It’s never too late to revive your efforts to make belonging a reality. Is it always easy? No. Is it always worth it? Absolutely. AC&F