Drilling Down on Diversity at Work

By From Advocacy to Activism Archives
Cover image for  article: Drilling Down on Diversity at Work

Even after decades in the business world, I have not yet seen a holistic approach to the challenge of diversity and inclusion in the workplace. No one has yet cracked the code, and we are not helped by the need to walk on eggshells. Many people fear talking about the issue has only downsides and that any misstep might give offense or cause you to be "cancelled." But we must talk about it anyway.

The "woke" generation too easily casts middle-aged white guys as closet racists if we question any aspect of the progressive orthodoxy. But those who grew up in big cities in the '60s, '70s and '80s remember what was then called integration and are sensitive to repeating mistakes. I don't view those days with rose-colored glasses -- but it does feel that despite the progress, we're going backwards today, toward a society that's more divided.

Many of today's solutions are contrived, semantic and declarative. In the working world, corporations big and small put Black Lives Matter proclamations on their web sites yet do little to address underlying systemic issues -- starting with paying fair wages.

The fundamental question is how to move from what Love H. Whelchel calls "superficial showmanship" toward true inclusion. Love worked on these issues for the largest marketing companies in the world, including Omnicom, WPP and IPG -- and then as Chief Human Resources Officer for Combs Enterprises (formerly Bad Boy Entertainment).

As an Indian American corporate strategist recently confided to me: "Diversity without inclusion is tokenism and worse an asset not used to its full potential."

So, what to do?

I spoke with Dr. Jennifer Mieres, a cardiologist, healthcare executive and author who is the chief diversity and inclusion officer at Northwell Health, the largest healthcare system in New York state and a client. Born and raised in Trinidad, she argues that "the profound lack of progress in achieving diversity is in part due to the superficial focus on the numbers game.

"Integration of education on the dark history of racism, and intentional strategies to change institutional culture to foster inclusion, are critical to achieving equity," she said. "Just as physicians are trained to do, organizations need to practice humanistic principles and treat every individual, of all backgrounds, with the same level of dignity and respect."

She got me thinking about reframing the current predicament by drilling down, thinking more broadly, and breaking through barriers.

  • Viewing that which is generally visible -- women and people of color, ethnicities, members of the LGBTQ community -- not as boxes to check but as individuals who are empowered throughout the organization. That includes reconsidering the mandatory retirement age and embracing "disabilities" as hidden abilities.
  • Touching different social, economic and regional layers so that we tap, nurture and retain a full variety of talent -- from Native Americans in South Dakota to poor white kids in West Virginia -- rather than going to the same privileged pool.
  • Reexamining educational credentials so it's not just the Ivy League or the largest public university that count. No less legitimate are land-grant institutions, historically Black colleges and universities, small colleges, and dropping out to get a job or start a company. Or no college at all.
  • Honoring our renaissance souls, so we're not building organizations that are just about domain expertise and where power is centralized. We can do without creeds like "we're an engineer-driven company" (when reality might be more complex) or "the bean counters are really in charge" (when cynicism is unhelpful).
  • Maintaining the ability to resist the echo chamber, showing the courage to constructively disagree, ask tough questions, truly listen to others and their perspectives, and respectfully present a different view even if feathers are ruffled.

The lack of genuine inclusion is corrosive. It harms people and diminishes their valuable ideas. A true change of mode requires focus and commitment. I know that is difficult in a society in which we're drowning in e-mail, arriving late for lunch and missing texts from our kids. It's easier to go with the flow. But the extra effort is necessary.

Let's move forward from the status quo -- from inaction that stems from fear of doing the "wrong thing." It is our individual responsibility, and the responsibility of businesses and organizations, to go beyond tokenism and declarations. If we don't, we risk propagating a culture which has not been nearly inclusive enough.

This is truly everyone's business.

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