The world has recently chosen to stand together against racial inequity and injustice. While protests flood the streets, businesses are looking for ways to extend support with social media statements, diversity and inclusion commitments, and donations to organizations. But is that enough to make sure the workplace is welcoming for all employees and customers?
Companies and brands hold massive amounts of cultural power, especially in the current social landscape. The attitudes and actions of these brands can prove influential to employees as well as to the general public (meaning current and future customers). Establishing an equitable and inclusive workplace will reflect a company’s values and communicates louder than any declaration ever could. Propagating fairness, impartiality, and inclusion in the work environment is not only the right thing ethically to do, it’s also the right business decision for revenue and growth reasons. Good people make a good world. Let’s remember, people give their business to companies they like.
A ‘Non-racist’ Workplace vs an Anti-racist Workplace
In working towards this, it’s important to make a distinction between simply ‘not being racist’ and actually being opposed to racism. If you are trying to establish a change in the workplace and create a truly anti-racist and safe environment, it’s not enough to merely not be actively racist. Most of the world’s population isn’t actively racist, so this alone doesn’t quantify as a significant step in the right direction.
To be anti-racist is to establish a company that openly endorses all values of equality, inclusion, and diversity and values, policies and practices that actively oppose racist behaviors.
Leading companies aim to not only create a diverse and inclusive workplace but to ensure that each and every person understands the company values their contribution and cares about their emotionally, mental, and physical safety.
While tricky HR change-makers who foster a culture that can recognize and acknowledge the potential existence of biases like racism, sexism, homophobia, ageism, and other discriminatory behaviors will more readily achieve their goals.
This is obvious, right? How can we tackle a problem we cannot acknowledge? We can’t. Unfortunately, however, it’s rare that employees have the capacity or temperament, let alone the courage and willingness to call-out discrimination in the workplace. But, cant we blame them? At every turn, we are witnessing distorted reactions to even the mention of the word racism, by an “anti-anti-racism” band of “racism deniers.” In fact, even Donald Trump is calling proactive approaches to addressing discrimination in the workplace as a “Marxist plot against white people.” Sigh.
While the journey may be perilous, as a society, we are already on the road and there’s no turning back now. “The United States is in a crisis,” according to an article titled, “U.S. Businesses Must Take Meaningful Action Against Racism” in the Harvard Business Review.
Thus, training, education, facilitated discussion circles, mediation, feedback loops, and other conflict management development solutions, as part of a well-considered plan, are essential. It’s time to help one another get over our fear and insecurity about talking about racism, diversity, and equity in the workplace.
Start with Anti-racism, Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Education
Being a tight-knit, magnanimous workforce with all on an equal level of understanding and acceptance is wonderful for team morale and productivity. Knowing that the people around you stand for the same ideals as you is empowering, and a real sign of a business’s strength. However, it’s not necessary nor desirable that all members be homogenous in their thinking to accomplish an aligned team and an anti-racist culture. In fact, it’s cognitive diversity that drives innovation and thus a monochromatic approach to fostering belonging and sameness is not the right plan.
It is essential, however, to educate and facilitate an openness to the values of equity, inclusion, and anti-discrimination. This will take time, patience, and an unwavering commitment to educate and listen to our employees.
Firstly, educate yourself as a leader of change. Many online resources are available that can illuminate things you may be doing subconsciously, that promote and allow exclusion. For example, even our standard practices of favoring education over experience can, when left unexamined, limit the diversity of your workplace demographic.
Take steps to understand your own implicit biases. Everyone starts from a place of preconceived ideas, no matter what they believe. We watch different media sources and have different life experiences. These can shape our subconscious associations, which can prove detrimental to our actions, even when trying our best to be “fair”. Tests, such as the Implicit Bias test from Harvard University can help you distinguish your biases. By knowing your biases, you’re better equipped to take steps around them and break free from their restrictions.
Another thing to consider is the omnipresence of the ‘dominance of the majority’ (in this case, white). As a society we are so used to seeing white people in positions of power; it is prevalent in much of our subconscious thinking. Because of the way our history unfolded, much of society is set up in a way that particularly benefits white people, and in particular the white male. This doesn’t mean white people never have to struggle. It only means they don’t have the additional struggle of race compounding their ability to succeed.
For those constantly being pushed upwards by the system, it’s easy to forget about the ways in which the system benefits you. If you can transform your workplace into a world that truly holds the space for inclusion and equity, and merit-based opportunity, you will be helping your organization and helping to improve the world.
Diversity & Inclusion Workshops and Antiracism teaching
While individuals can and do have influence, it’s tough to do this on your own. Workshops and meetings are a great way to collectively work towards dismantling any prejudices and inequitable values that may be present. Creating a space where open discussion (facilitated by an experienced DEI trainer, preferably) can happen provides learning opportunities for the whole workplace.
Diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives, such as monthly discussion circles and similar exercises and workshops help to continually establish opportunities for education and change.
Teaching about implicit bias, about systemic racism, and about inclusion sends a message of change and establishes the value of being “intolerant to intolerance.”
Moving away from diversity-focused programs and towards inclusion-focused initiatives
While deliberately building a diverse workplace is important, research (and common sense) reveal that it doesn’t matter if your workplace is diverse if people are unhappy there. Thus, focusing more on what it means to be an inclusive, welcoming company can help break down the resistance to change. Stress that these meetings aren’t about people getting ‘special treatment’, they are about everyone getting treated fairly and equitably, and without bias. This is what it will take to get everyone on the same page, in terms of releasing narrow-mindedness and unfair preference.
It’s important to remember that our employees will need help taking responsibility for their actions and holding themselves accountable. If they lean too stubbornly into their implicit biases, it’s up to them to fix it. They get to decide if they are willing to change and adhere to the organizational values. However, if they feel safe and not threatened in the environment, and lead by someone who upholds the values that are being encouraged, it’s easier to self-reflect and over time and self-initiate change.
Company mission statement and values
Define the values of your company. Do your values prioritize people, fairness, and equality? An organization is not an intangible thing, but a collection of people. If we put people first, people will reciprocate in loyalty and consideration back towards the company. A kind workplace is a safe workplace and employees are more likely to stand up for righteous morals and thereby foster a less-discriminatory and more inclusive culture.
Achieving this rests on your flexibility and clarity of purpose as an employer. For example, decide if it is right for your company to support participation in physically joining protests, or if there are other ways to show support that better suit both your business and people goals. It’s up to you as an employer to be flexible and create a workplace that supports your employees’ personal efforts to be inclusive. Support employees in their passions, and the support will be reciprocated. Put your employees first when it matters most. It may sound trite, but a happy workplace is an environment where inclusivity can blossom.
Don’t be afraid to learn as you go
One of the main reasons racial inequality is still so present in society is because it’s so hidden. If all the problems were blatant, it would be easier to tackle. For this reason, accept that learning as you go along is a legitimately large part of this whole experience. It’s okay to go blindly forth in the right direction.
Meetings will provide suggestions and ideas, and unite the mentality of your employees, but it will take adjustment and patience by everyone. Making changes when you encounter a problem can prove more useful than trying to change everything immediately.
The bottom line is, aim to be inclusive. Be inclusive of race, gender, age, etc. If you’re inclusive, diversity will come naturally. Create an environment where everyone is trained on how to tackle racism and discrimination. Focus on ensuring that your workforce understand the organizational values and support adaptation and adherence, while mindfully recognizing this will not be an easy journey, and thus must be managed with its own set of kid gloves.
Let’s be kind to one another, as we traverse this vulnerable journey together. By allowing all people a safe place to learn, change, and grow, your businesses will thrive.
About the writer:
Anisa Aven is a management and culture consultant and business strategist. As the founder and CEO of a global, enterprise learning and development firm, Anisa and her team have delivered thousands of hours of training on a wide range of topics including diversity, equity, inclusion, unconscious bias, and antiracism in the workplace.
Since 2004, the professionals at Turkey Coaching and Development Solutions have offered personalized training for navigating business best-practices and promoting growth at work and in life.
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