Creating a More Equitable Workplace

To make substantive, transformational changes in diversity, inclusion and equity in your business, speak up, use your power and keep talking

The impassioned protests for racial justice that have erupted across the United States in recent months have been an ardent call to action for many business leaders, pushing them to move quickly on diversity, equity and inclusion efforts within their organizations. But one expert warns that they shouldn’t rush through the necessary steps.

Creating a more tolerant and just workplace takes time, said Kwasi Mitchell, principal and diversity, equity and inclusion lead at Deloitte Consulting LLP.

“We need to think of it more as a spiral staircase rather than a linear path,” he said. “It’s going to be a mixture of bold change, a mixture of tactical steps, that are going to lead us up the spiral staircase. Remember that we are, in fact, going up. I think that’s the key in remaining hopeful.”

Mitchell, who heads an initiative to advance more female, minority, veteran and transgender practitioners at Deloitte, offered his guidance during a segment of “Leading Diversity at Work,” a Know-ledge@Wharton podcast series hosted by management professor Stephanie Creary, an identity and diversity scholar at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania based in Philadelphia.

The deaths this year of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, two unarmed Black people who were killed by police, galvanized the Black Lives Matter movement and sparked worldwide demonstrations. Since then, there have been more killings of unarmed Black people. But that initial momentum has combined with the myriad ways in which the Covid-19 pandemic has transformed business to create what Creary describes as a “vacuum of change-related opportunities.” Those opportunities can be so overwhelming that leaders may not know where to start.

“We certainly are living in a time where there is increased energy and attention to talking about issues of systemic and racial injustice,” Creary said. “It’s not just something that is happening here in the United States. There has been a call to action to talk about racial injustice around the world.”

She asked Mitchell to help by outlining strategies for companies that want to make substantive, transformational changes. Here are three specific goals:

1. Find your voice

Before a company can begin acting on diversity, equity and inclusion, the people within it need to have honest, ongoing conversations. That means creating a safe space for people to voice their thoughts and ideas without penalty.

But Mitchell said pandemic-related remote work is having an uneven effect on speaking up: Introverts who haven’t felt comfortable contributing during in-person meetings may be more willing to do so over video conference. However, parents who are trying to balance work with childcare are finding it difficult to ask for support.

“Unfortunately, that really disadvantages our women, who, as we all know, historically bear the brunt of a lot of care-giving services,” he said.

Mitchell also pointed out a paradox in speaking up. White men, who traditionally hold more power in the workplace, can be reluctant to talk about diversity, equity and inclusion because they feel unqualified to do so, while Black women are frequently punished for vocalizing diversity, equity and inclusion concerns.

That must change, he said. The responsibility of advocacy should not be borne solely by minority employees.

“White men have the opportunity to use their voices to advance diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives and, by and large, are not penalized by putting out different ideas that are seen as advocacy and celebrated. That’s phenomenal,” he said. “You also have white men who are terrified or feeling ill-equipped to have the right dialogue and sit on the sidelines. Because they feel like they don’t know the right things to say, people abstain from driving that dialogue, which to me is problematic.”

Mitchell also cautioned that diversity, equity and inclusion advocates, especially minorities, must build a reputation for being fair, impartial and working for the greater good.

“As people think about selecting people who will be agents of change, or if you are someone who is driving change within an organization, it’s key to have that level of credibility and fairness,” he said. “Otherwise, you will be viewed as someone who might be doing things to advance their own personal situation.”

2. Find your power

While there is much research supporting the idea that effective diversity, equity and inclusion must be led from the C-suite, Creary asked Mitchell to focus his attention on middle managers. They do not have the highest level of authority, yet they are frontline leaders tasked with carrying out many diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives.

It’s a tough spot, indeed. Mitchell recalled a boss he had right after graduate school who used to say, “Middle management can be the death of all great strategic initiatives.” That’s because middle managers typically are given vague instructions and no tools to effect change.

“I’ve always found that you do need to be incredibly prescriptive on expectations — what we’re measuring — and really give them the tools to be able to drive forward and focus on change,” Mitchell said. “Do not underestimate being prescriptive. Do not, do not, do not. That’s one thing that has become abundantly clear to me over the last two years.”

He urged middle managers to identify their place in the diversity, equity and inclusion conversation, set the right leadership tone and act with intention. They should work to expand their network beyond the usual candidates or people they are comfortable with. In other words, consider minority employees for promotions and team leadership roles.

“I would extend that to each and every time that you’re providing somebody with a growth opportunity or a highly visible opportunity to advance their career,” Mitchell said. “Are you going to that same series of people that you always have, or have you looked a little bit further to see whom you would want to give a new opportunity to?”

3. Find your influence

Everyone within an organization, from the C-suite to the mailroom, can lead change. It’s a matter of finding your sphere of influence, Mitchell said.

For some people, that sphere may include five others. For world leaders, it includes tens of millions. But size doesn’t matter when it comes to finding constructive solutions to pressing issues. Mitchell said he shares that message particularly with junior colleagues who think they don’t have the power to make a difference.

“Wherever you operate on that spectrum, you still bear the responsibility of improving the livelihood, the perspective, the inclusivity of that sphere of influence,” he said. “It’s important to think about and contribute to solving the larger problems, but break it down so that it’s local and direct — things that you can do on a day-to-day basis to improve the situation of others.”

Mitchell said he hopes leaders can look back in a few years and find their diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives weren’t simply knee-jerk responses to recent events but a transformational journey. He encouraged executives not to “immediately default to action” because programming is meaningless unless it truly changes employees’ experiences.

And most of all, keep talking.

“Do not underestimate communication,” he said. “Because in the absence of that communication, the narrative will be made for you, and the narrative is always negative, right? I’ve never seen a situation where someone has made up a positive narrative in the absence of any information at all.”

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