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An Opportunity for Change

Yendelela Neely Holston, Partner and Chief Diversity & Inclusion Officer, Kilpatrick Townsend & Stockton LLP

Yendelela Neely Holston, Partner and Chief Diversity & Inclusion Officer, Kilpatrick Townsend & Stockton LLP

“What if 2020 isn’t canceled? What if 2020 is the year we’ve been waiting for? A year so uncomfortable, so painful, so scary, so raw—that it finally forces us to grow. …”

- Leslie Dwight

The challenges and stresses of 2020 are undeniable. But what if these challenges present opportunities? What if 2020 is your organization’s growth opportunity? Consider the following to help your company’s diversity and inclusion initiatives emerge from 2020 stronger and more impactful than when you entered.

Reframe the discussion

While on its face, diversity purports to value everyone’s differences, in reality, it has become a catch-phrase for everyone who is not a cisgender, heterosexual, able-bodied, white man. The rest of the world is “diverse;” they are seen as different, other, and in need of acceptance. Thus, when companies say they have a “diversity problem,” it is usually the “diverse people” that are seen as the problem that needs to be fixed. How do we help them succeed; how do we help them be better; how do we make them good enough to be here?

Rather than properly focusing internally on why the company is not hiring black people at a rate consistent with the available demographics or why the company cannot retain a woman executive or why employees feel they must hide their depression, it is more convenient (and quite frankly more comfortable) to focus on the diverse people as the problem. However, “diverse people” are not and never have been the problem. When companies stop looking at diverse people as the impediments to their success, it frees the business to identify and address the real problems. Unfortunately, for years, diversity and inclusion initiatives have been largely focused on fixing people who are not broken and not on radically dismantling a system that is.

Commit to Making a Real Change

Despite the waves of attention paid to “diversity” and improving “diversity,” companies have been willing to do little more than talk about the “diversity problem.” Businesses talk about it in training, learning all of the things that impede diversity – discrimination, unconscious biases, microaggressions. Managers leave the training feeling good that they “put in the work” and feeling accomplished that they are “fixed,” only to continue business as usual.

“By trying to make diverse people “fit” into your company, you impliedly communicate that they do not naturally belong there”

The problem with diversity and inclusion is that companies have repeatedly shown that they are unwilling to put in the hard work necessary to overcome the centuries of systemic issues and structural barriers that have made workforces largely homogeneous. Rather than focusing solely on “locating diverse talent,” determine what your recruiting practices are that repeatedly result in new employees who are overwhelmingly white. How have you accounted for the proven biases related to “ethnic-sounding” names or the association bias that comes when recruiters and interviewers “see themselves” in the applicant? What measures have been put into place to monitor performance evaluations for patterns of bias and address them? What have you done to ensure that diverse people have an equitable chance at success? Taking a long, hard, honest introspective look at where your company has fallen short and rectifying those failings is what will result in lasting change and create a truly diverse workforce.

Consider what you are saying versus what you are communicating

Often, businesses speak of “making room” for diversity and/or diverse people. However, this rhetoric puts the onus on diverse applicants and employees to become acceptable so that they can be accepted. As long as this assimilation is the goal, a company will always have a “diversity problem.” By trying to make diverse people “fit” into your company, you impliedly communicate that they do not naturally belong there. Thus, no matter how pleasant the environment, diverse people will know it is not a place where they can thrive as they are. The following analogy illustrates this point.

You are invited to an acquaintance’s house for dinner. They warmly greet you at the door and let you know how excited they are to have you over. Despite being welcomed in and told to make yourself at home, this is not your home. Thus, you use your best manners; you make sure to keep your elbows off the table, and you are very careful to not butter your bread with a steak knife. Because of all of the attention you gave to not offending your acquaintance in their house, you could not be yourself. And you surely were not as comfortable as you would have been eating dinner at your house. No matter how nice and welcoming the acquaintance was, it was still their house and you felt that you had to behave a certain way. The same is true with businesses. Thus, rather than speaking in terms of “inviting diverse people to the table” and then wondering why they are not comfortable, companies need to instead take a step back and figure out how to create an environment where everyone feels the same level of ownership over the table.

Of course, this is easier said than done. No matter how many times a company says it values racial/ ethnic diversity if the entire board room is white, the business has communicated that any people of color who come are by invitation only; this is not their table. Likewise, a business can make gender equity statement after gender equity statement, but as long as its C-Suite is all-male, the business has communicated that while a woman may occasionally be invited to eat, this is not their table. Similarly, the company can post a rainbow logo every June, but as long as its benefits are restrictive, the company has communicated that LGBTQA+ employees do not own the table; they are just visitors.

2020 has been a year like no other. What if 2020 isn’t canceled, but is instead viewed as an opportunity to make bold and sustained changes necessary to ensure that in 2040 we are no longer just talking about diversity and inclusion but are instead living it.

Weekly Brief

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