It’s no secret that many people are uncomfortable with discussing issues around race, diversity, and inclusiveness in the workplace. However, as we all know, the first step toward solving any problem is to acknowledge it.
In general, it is better to be proactive than reactive in building an inclusive workplace. Organizations that initially overlook questions of diversity, face public criticism as a result, and then make changes in response, may be accused of kowtowing to critics instead of showing a bona fide desire to become more inclusive. Likewise, the general public is unlikely to find a large organization’s claims of “meritocracy” convincing if the lack of diversity among its high-ranking officials is obvious. And in business, as in politics, public opinion matters a great deal.
Consider the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences—better known as the agency behind the Oscars. In the weeks leading up to this year’s ceremony, the Academy courted heavy criticism over the apparent lack of diversity among its voting members—and the consequences in terms of the films and performers deemed meritorious of Oscar consideration. Some high-profile critics even announced plans to boycott the Awards.
Although the Academy’s president Cheryl Boone Isaacs said her organization would take “dramatic steps” to change the composition of its membership, scrutiny of the Academy’s hiring and nomination practices will continue. The onus of demonstrating progress now falls squarely on the shoulders of Isaacs and her colleagues.
According to the Los Angeles Times, as of February 2016, 91 percent of the Academy’s 6,261 voting members are white, and 76 percent are male.
Dr. Kira Hudson Banks is a psychologist who specializes in racial identity, discrimination, diversity, and their relationship to mental health. Writing in Harvard Business Review, Banks recommends that organizations make a deliberate, long-term investment in inclusiveness. This means engaging with issues of race, inclusivity, and diversity on a regular basis, rather than merely in a one-off seminar.
For this purpose, managers can organize small study groups and/or specialized training sessions devoted to discussions among people of diverse ethnic and cultural backgrounds, life experiences, and gender identities.
Items that participants might engage with include:
• Privilege: What is it, and what role does it play both in society, and within our organization in particular?
• Experiences of discrimination: Have you experienced discrimination or barriers to success based on race, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity, or physical ability? Have you noticed any such barriers here, within this organization? If so, what can we (as managers) do to facilitate your success?
• Employment-related issues involving diversity and inclusiveness: Possible topics include the hiring and employment disparity between people with “ethnic-sounding” names and those with Anglo-Saxon-sounding names; the merits of affirmative action; the persistent compensation gap between men and women; and the presence (or deficiency) of infrastructure to assist people with disabilities.
• Key questions: What would inclusiveness look like? How can we (as an organization) achieve it? Individuals within the organization may have different ideas about what inclusiveness and diversity mean. Encourage them to share these notions openly and frankly within their discussion groups, and be prepared to deal with direct criticism. A measure of conflict is okay in this situation, provided the atmosphere remains respectful and all participants have a fair chance to express their point of view.
This process has three main goals: 1) to enable individuals to identify and confront their own biases and misconceptions; 2) to establish a common understanding and direction for the organization with respect to inclusiveness, and highlight any shortcomings in that area; and ultimately, 3) to foster a work climate in which all current and prospective personnel feel they have a fair opportunity to succeed.