Many companies, when they start embracing diversity and inclusion, tend to focus mostly on hiring. They ask: how can we increase our diversity? How can we create a pool of people from minority groups that we can look to for hiring? And so on. Improving or balancing out ‘the numbers’ is a good start, but if your efforts stop right after hiring then it becomes just a symbolic effort, and you might fall into tokenism.
Tokenism: ‘the practice of doing something (such as hiring a person who belongs to a minority group) only to prevent criticism and give the appearance that people are being treated fairly.’
When companies focus only on hiring, they leave another important part out: can your company culture, policies, and team dynamics accommodate a more diverse group? Is your company able to create a safe space for them? Or will they feel marginalized, and that they don’t belong? Will they want to leave shortly after being hired? Will they feel oppressed, or empowered?
Here comes the tricky part. If your company’s leadership is really diverse, they probably already know the answers to these questions and are working on solutions. They can do this because they are able to see these issues, because they have experienced them before. But if your company lacks diversity in leadership – like most companies in this industry – this is probably not the case.
So then, what can you do?
How can you fix or improve something that you or your company are not really able to see? You need to unlearn a few things; create a safe space for your team to speak up; relearn by listening to them; and become their ally.
At ustwo, I’ve been lucky to have had amazing mentors and a leadership group humble enough to recognize that they don’t have all the answers, and that they need to listen and involve the people for this to work.
I’m not a Diversity and Inclusion (D&I) expert. I acknowledge that even though I’m from a minority group myself, I’m still privileged in many aspects. I don’t seek to talk about issues that are not for me to speak on; I just want to share what I have learned from mentors and my experiences by putting things into practice. Because the more people share their experiences, the better.
Creating a safe space for your team
You need to create a safe space for people to feel comfortable talking about these issues. But you can’t just book a meeting out of the blue and ask them to speak up – they most likely won’t. It’s important to understand that oppressed people and folks from minority groups have created a ‘shield’. They use this shield to be able to navigate and function within spaces where microaggressions and oppressions show up – like work and school. By asking them to speak up out of the blue, you are asking them to put their shield down. Imagine how that feels.
Where to start?
You can start with the very basics. These are the things you should be doing to start gaining trust from your team: mean no harm; be mindful; be kinder; be more compassionate; and most importantly, put some time in to understand your own biases and keep your privilege in check. There are plenty of good resources and tools around that you can use.
One of the best ways to create a safe space for your team is by being vulnerable. We all feel vulnerable at times and have our own personal struggles. If you show your team that you are just as vulnerable as anybody else, they will slowly start to feel okay with being vulnerable too, and will start to put down their shields. Normalize talking about feelings, especially if you are feeling down. Normalize talking about mental health. And normalize knowing that it’s okay not to be okay.
You could use your ongoing team meetings to practice this. It will be just a matter of time until you have a good insight of the things that are working, and things that aren’t.
Become an ally
Allyship is the active, consistent, and arduous practice of unlearning and re-evaluating, in which a person in a position of privilege or power seeks to operate in solidarity with a marginalized group
Allyship is a key part of the process. If you practice allyship with your team, they will feel that you have their back. Here are a few things you can do to start practicing your ally skills:
Advocate for your team.
Especially for folks from underrepresented groups. Make sure you publicly support and endorse them.
Keep an eye out for injustices.
Call them out and do something about it. If you don’t, you’ll become part of the problem, and you will lose your team’s trust. Injustices can be in the form of microaggressions (i.e. when you are meeting someone, asking where they’re from just because they might look different); prejudiced assumptions (i.e. expecting women to take notes of the meeting); systematic inequalities (i.e. promoting only white people or men); wrongly assuming people's gender, and so on.
Give credit and recognition to people with less of a voice.
Speak up for them. Because of their background, some might lack the confidence or seniority to speak up for themselves. Make sure you don’t replace their voice with yours – amplify their voice instead.
Be mindful of people’s time.
Keep these activities during work hours. Some people are caregivers or have long commutes ahead of them. Going out for drinks after work is nice, but this should not be the only opportunity for bonding. Make time during work hours.
Promote people who care
Another important priority should be promoting people who care about people. If you only focus on hard skills, your culture will probably suffer and people from underrepresented groups will start to feel marginalized.
A good way to implement this could be adding a new evaluation category to your reviews, ranking folks on their effectiveness in allyship, inclusivity, empathy, support, or similar. These categories could also be used when evaluating new candidates. Evaluating in these categories can be more difficult than for hard skills, so it might be helpful to define beforehand how you are going to evaluate them. By doing this, you can ensure that everyone will evaluate in the same way, removing subjectivity and bias from the equation.
It’s okay not to know
I have noticed a pattern that people from privileged positions don’t participate in D&I activities as often as people from minority groups. I’m sure that at times the thinking is, ‘if it doesn’t affect me, I don’t care or I don’t have the time’. But I’m also sure that sometimes people don’t participate because they are worried they will mess up. They see themselves as someone who doesn’t know much about this subject, and worry that they could hurt someone unintentionally.
This is a fair concern, but as I said previously, if you don’t do anything you become part of the problem. Think of it this way: people from minority groups are already dealing with microaggressions and oppressions at work – even if you don’t see them. For them, it will be much better to deal with someone who is trying, than someone who is not doing anything at all. Apologizing and saying that you will do better next time means a lot, and it’s how you start generating meaningful change.
Hiring is just the first step towards diversity. To have a really inclusive company that empowers everyone and not just a few, you need to create genuine safe spaces for all. You need to become an ally and advocate for others. And you need to imprint these values into the company for when you are no longer there.
We spend most of our lives at work. If you put in the effort to build a healthier and inclusive culture, you won’t only be helping your team or the company, you will be leaving a lasting impact on people’s lives.