Every company appears to be working diligently to create diversity, equity, and inclusion in its workforce. Lots of money is being spent on programs, training sessions, conversations, and hiring presenters to talk about the issues and ways to improve. If everything under the sun is being done, why isn't anything happening that shows an improvement in how those in the workforce are feeling about DEI. That's a million-dollar question that most people don't want to answer or pretend they don't know the truth.
Twenty years ago, I created my own public relations and marketing firm because I was feeling exactly what workers have been feeling for the longest time. It doesn't matter the age of the workers, their ethnicity, the location, or the money being spent to make positive changes because in most companies it's not happening for a reason that took me a while to comprehend.
In 2017, I decided to take a leave from my business and step back into the working world to project manage a communications campaign. Over the years my team and I have managed many successful public health campaigns, but I was curious to see what had changed over time. To my surprise, nothing had changed in 20 years, except things had gotten worse. One of the biggest problems I noticed during the first week was that many of the same old staff members were still making the same bad decisions that never worked twenty years ago, but they kept doing the same thing hoping for success. More than once, I was told over and over again, "This is the way we do things, and we are not changing". Initially, I laughed until I realised they were serious. So, I decided to watch, document, and help other companies not follow this path of destruction. Now I understand the quote, "Insanity: Doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results."
While on the job the new buzz words - diversity, ethnicity, and inclusion were on everyone's lips because of the money attached to leading programs that would empower staff members. For a moment I froze because this was the same ideology from 1999 that made me run for my life to try to make a difference in the world of public relations and marketing. I closed my eyes and listened very carefully as the same old messages from the past were still being practiced as if they were new ideas. Managers spoke with authority about a topic they clearly knew nothing about. So, I watched and listened very carefully as I diagnosed and dissected the real issues that prevent companies from achieving DEI.
After analysing the management team, it was apparent that those in charge of leading the organisation were the main part of the problem. The foundation to creating a great DEI program was there but the wrong people were appointed to facilitate it. It didn't take long to understand that those in charge were also known as the most racist and inadequate managers on staff. Of course, I challenged them every step of the way, and my feedback was not appreciated. In most companies, staff members, especially those of diverse cultures or many from the LGBTQ community were uncomfortable. These staff members felt:
Undervalued / Under-appreciated
Insecure and Isolated
Not allowed to speak openly and honest
Fear of losing their jobs
They had to be silent and pretend to agree with the status quo
Anti-bias training was a waste of time when nothing changes at all within the work environment
Unable to participate fully in discussions without being shut down
There was a lack of strong coaches and mentors equipped for the job
When managers would talk about hiring key people for the roles in DEI, they would talk about hiring an African American, Latino, Asian/Pacific Islander, or LGBTQ identified people into the role without looking at the best person qualified for the position. Many would only look for someone with the right coloured skin that they could manipulate to be abusive to the staff of colour. And it worked well. I can remember one African American director that hated other African Americans and made their lives a living hell. She was praised by all the white managers for doing a great job. It reminded me of the stories from slavery where slave owners would pull one of the slaves in to do their dirty work, such as beating the other slaves or reporting back to the masters if anything was being planned in terms of escaping. No one ever asked the staff their opinion or listened to any feedback when certain people were being hired to lead discussions on diversity, ethnicity, and inclusion. As difficult as it is to imagine, it still happens today.
Initially, I was surprised how many staff members didn't speak up or had no comments on topics that would get discussed outside of the meeting when going for walks during their lunch break. Fear played a major role for staff members that didn't want to lose their jobs. I can remember several women of colour speaking up and sharing great information in a passionate voice, but later managers started to refer to them as the angry Black woman or the angry Latinas. It worked perfectly to shut them down completely. It soon became clear that the situation was not unique and that it existed in many companies all over. While watching and feeling the pain that staff members were going through, it felt like driving on a busy freeway during rush hour in the wrong direction trying to figure out how to survive and go in the right direction. Almost impossible to do.
Most professionals all want the same thing, they want to feel safe, seen, and supported. Most leaders and managers have a difficult time modelling intense active listening and humble inquiry, providing clear guidelines for team communication, destigmatizing failure, emphasising continuous accountability, and routinely acknowledging and thanking people for their participation without being fake. It helps when leadership is genuinely interested in knowing the staff and listening to what they can contribute to the discussion. In one of the organisations that I worked with, when talking about certain communities, many of the staff were from the communities but their opinion was not requested or heard. As a result, members that understood the issues and knew the answers stopped talking because management didn't want to hear what they had to say. At Promotions West, we truly believe in the importance of having two ears and one mouth. One ear is for listening and the other is for hearing. As leadership, the mouth is to ask yourself an essential question, 'Why Am I Talking or WAIT. It's amazing the things you can learn through actively listening to what is being shared.
Experience has taught me that it is possible to create successful diversity, equity, and inclusion programs if the appropriate people are at the table. The game is not about rotating the same unqualified managers to make sure that nothing positive happens to change the atmosphere. I can remember one manager in particular that worked very hard to destroy me with her racist comments and behaviour. Unfortunately for her, she misjudged my character. Cutting my teeth in Washington, DC with the Obama Administration taught me how to deal with racism and racist people without breaking a sweat. She later approached me to apologise for her racist tactics used against me and assured me that she was seeing a counsellor to deal with her racist attitude. I simply smiled because I knew that she was pretending to be honest. She would often tear up to obtain sympathy in group meetings. It always made me laugh. Great acting skills though.
Caring leadership can provide staff members with what they need: managers who strive toward a system that makes everyone feel “safe, seen, and supported.”
In the end, this changes not just the dynamic with and outcomes for all employees, especially those of colour. It shifts the culture of the organisation to cultivate the full potential of all employees. Can it be done? Yes, it can. Will it be done? Only time will tell.