The corporate conversation around diversity has taken on many dimensions over the years, most rapidly in the past 18 months as a response to the murder of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter marches. Organizations have publicly touted their commitment to diversity and done so by branding their efforts under a variety of umbrellas: D&I, I&D, DEI, and more. As varied as the acronyms, so too are the activities and programs that unfold at each organization. From HR ensuring a more diverse slate of job candidates, to training on microaggressions, organizations are defining and refining how they will work to ensure a more diverse, inclusive, equitable, and just company culture and employee experience.
During a Taft-sponsored webinar, “Words Matter: Communicating to promote racial equity in the workplace,” we explored several areas where corporate diversity leaders may find challenges and opportunities for greater focus and success. The panel discussion featured several DEI experts, including Ryan Haygood, president and CEO of the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice; Rina Desai, director of financial planning and analysis at Panasonic North America; and Alison Banks-Moore, chief diversity officer at Horizon Blue Cross Blue Shield of New Jersey. Each shared insights and perspectives that they’ve learned along the way that may bring value to any organization during their DEI journey.
The webinar was spurred by a mixed bag of findings uncovered during our fifth annual New Jersey State of Diversity SM Survey. Most notably, it revealed that, in workplaces, there are higher rates of people who are hearing what could be considered offensive to racial and ethnic minorities and to women; and nearly 50% of all non-white respondents said they have personally felt discrimination often or occasionally, compared to 31% of whites.
Encouragingly, younger respondents between the ages of 18 and 35 are more tuned into examples of offensive language or discrimination, signaling that new members of the workforce might have a higher degree of sensitivity to issues of equity and inclusion. That’s a good thing.
“One of the most important things to realize is that there has been a shift in DE&I, it’s a new way of thinking,” Rina Desai said. She shared several activities and programs that are working at Panasonic North America and other organizations including diversity and microaggression training; C-suite communication, education, and continuous learning opportunities; amplifying employee resource groups to ensure they have a seat at the table with leadership; and obtaining the right resources and support to ensure talent practices are anti-biased.
All of these efforts are commendable. Yet we recognize the challenges as what happens outside of our offices greatly impacts our organizations.
2020: A pivotal year for DEI
The murders of several Black people at the hands of law enforcement and Black Lives Matter marches and protests made headlines and became a big part of the race and social justice conversation across the world, at home, and in workplaces. Many organizations shared their voice publicly on the injustices that are happening and many also created space for employees to share their feelings, gain support, and educate themselves and their colleagues.
“People are very cautious about what they should say and what they shouldn’t say,” said Alison Bank-Moore. In many instances, I have heard comments such as, ‘I don’t know what to say so I don’t say anything.’ But the perception of that is by not saying anything, what does that really mean?”
When asked how to be an ally and show support, she recommends saying, “I just want to let you know I’m thinking about you, I care about you, and if you want to talk, I’m here for you.”
The recipients of all the social injustices going on right now are hurting. You may not be able to share the experience of what they’re going through, but you can empathize and connect with them with a sincere human-to-human interaction.
How to maintain DEI efforts
The challenge now is to sustain the work and the efforts started last year at our organizations. There’s a lot more that can be done, and we must ensure that we are not creating programs to just “check the box,” but listening, engaging, and creating opportunities for real impact and positive change.
Ryan Haygood explained that New Jersey Institute for Social Justice’s mission is “to identify and topple what we think of as sort of structural, load bearing walls of racial inequality that when knocked down, open up opportunities for people of color in particular, in the areas of economic justice.” He calls upon all of us — individuals and organizations — to “…think about how we in our spaces, whatever our sphere of influence is, if it’s within a corporation or a community, a small business, a large business, a nonprofit. How do we organize ourselves around these difficult conversations to move those words into actions in a way that we build community.”
Click to tweet: The challenge is to sustain the #DEI work started last year at our organizations. We must continually monitor our progress and be transparent about the results and continued efforts. These tips will help. http://ow.ly/puqB50F8us0 @taftcomms #communications
What are the difficult conversations you are having internally at your organizations about your DEI efforts? Seventy four percent of the State of Diversity respondents said employers should play a role in promoting racial equity, and Desai and Banks-Moore shared what that should look like.
“This is the time to innovate DE&I. It’s not the time to remain silent.” Desai said. “Employees are your brand ambassadors on the front line. How they feel about equity, either it’s race, gender at the workplace, will come out either consciously or unconsciously, good or bad.”
Listening sessions at Horizon Blue Cross Blue Shield of New Jersey proved quite powerful, according to Banks-Moore. She said employees appreciated having the time and place to share and be heard. “They want more conversations like this. They want to continue this dialogue. It’s not just a once and done type of situation. You have to continue this dialogue because it’s forever changing. It’s not static, and to gain understanding and get that collaboration going, you have to talk about it and, yes, it’s awkward and it’s uncomfortable. However, with tools, the proper resources, and education and training for those that will facilitate, it can be done, and it has been done.”
Tips for those who are leading DEI efforts
- Aspire to have racial diversity at all levels: entry-level to C-suite to the board.
- Define what DEI success is for your organization. If incongruent with what your employees are telling you, that’s your starting point.
- Hold leadership accountable.
- Measure along the way to ensure you get to what success should look like from the top down and bottom up.
- Muster up the courage to be vocal and stand for what you know is right, even in the face of adversity.
- Work with your communications team to ensure that there is a consistent reinforcement of your commitment to DEI.
- Be tenacious; don’t give up. Be intentional and focused about what it is that you’re trying to achieve.
- Be steadfast, thoughtful, an influencer, a multiplier — these are all skills to help you, educate others, and bring them along the continuum as you continue this journey.
- Keep listening, learning, and leading change, not only for employees, but for the world outside.
The role of the DEI lead at an organization is not an easy one, yet it can be one of the most rewarding, as we set out to meet people where they are and provide them the safe spaces to grow in a way that creates more diverse, inclusive, equitable, and just environments for all to thrive.
At Taft, we’ve established a council and an action plan we call JEDI – Justice, Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion. Grounded in our firm’s core purpose, the plan outlines several, key focus areas and efforts:
- Talent – staff diversity, pay equity, equitable advancement
- Cultural inclusivity– team wellness and culture, education and training, forums to recognize, celebrate and discuss DEI
- Public education and impact– annual state of diversity survey; DEI charitable, volunteer and pro bono support, participate in public dialogue
- Marketing & communications– inclusive language, diversified media outreach, speak out against racial disparities
- Business operations– vendor diversity, support BIPOC-owned businesses
A major part of this plan is to ensure that we are continually monitoring our progress in each area and being transparent across our organization about the results and our continued efforts.
We’ve also continued our DEI work by providing our clients with the tools necessary to effectively communicate to and with each other and counsel and direction to help them create and implement strategies that will drive change.
Whether you are in the early or more advanced stages of implementing your DEI programs, Taft offers a platform to discuss, review, and implement your strategic plans and communications efforts. To learn how we can help you, contact us via email or the below form.