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Building an Inclusive Culture

#cohesion #diversitymatters #highperformance #leadership #strategy Feb 21, 2023

Several years ago, I was employed as a designated hire at a large, nationally ranked university. This is Canada’s attempt to diversify the work force in key areas where representation is limited. Having the mantle of ‘designated hire’ became a yoke around my neck. It gave permission for people to look at me as unqualified. I felt like the decisions I made were constantly questioned. I’ll never forget how this felt. In a specific incident related to my response to a problem in the residence halls, a colleague actually said to me, ‘You need more than Director of Athletics and coaching experience to conceptualize this problem.’ That person, like others, made a faulty assumption about my preparation.

The reality of my experience included a decade in Residence and Student Life. I was charged with building communities and creating policies and systems that balanced students’ rights and university protocols. I had even presented my own research at national housing conferences.

My colleagues viewed me as narrowly prepared to do the job rather than having a full and balanced skill set and experience to bring greater thinking to the problem. It was condescending. Many assumed that I wouldn’t have been a chosen if not for my racialized status. Let me be clear, I am for increasing under-representation in predominantly White organizations, but you’ll never find me making a case for ‘designated hires’ or ‘affirmative action.’ I have found that designated hiring creates isolation in predominantly White organizations and creates a feeling exclusion versus a sense of mattering and belonging.

So how DO you go about creating a sense of belonging when bringing in diverse talent to your organization?  Here are a few key Do’s and Don’ts to consider:

DO: Set up a rotation for office housework, and DON’T:  Ask for volunteers.

For example, women report doing about 20% more ‘office housework’ on average than their male counterparts whether it’s literal housework (arranging for lunch or cleaning up after a meeting), administrative tasks (finding a place to meet or prepping a PowerPoint), or undervalued work (mentoring summer interns).

If you ask for volunteers, women and people of color will feel powerful pressure to prove they are ‘team players’ by raising their hands. ‘Diversity’ hires may lag behind their majority-member peers because they’re doing extra stuff that doesn’t get them extra credit. DO train, assign, evaluate, count and compensate for the time spent on all work activities fairly across your team.

DO: Mindfully design and assign people to high-value projects.

Bosses may meet with some employees more regularly than others, but it’s important to make sure this is driven by business demands and team needs. Just the simple act of spending more time with an employee may cause you to consider them more for promotion and will certainly lend the optics to that possibility. Equalize access proactively.

DO: Ask people to weigh in.

Many professionals who were raised by parents from non-Western cultures report being brought up with a ‘modesty mandate’ that can lead them to hold back their thoughts or speak in a tentative, deferential way. Counter this by extending a specific invitation: “You have experience with this—what are we missing? Is this the best course of action?”

DO:  Learn about and support differences.

A 2009 study by Plaut, Thomas & Goren looked at support for multiculturalism versus colorblindness in nearly 4,000 employees at a large U.S. health care firm. The more that workers agreed that “employees should recognize and celebrate racial and ethnic differences” and the more they disagreed that “employees should downplay their racial and ethnic differences,” the more racialized team members reported feeling engaged in their work.

Fairness requires treating people equitably—which may entail treating people differently, but in a way that makes sense.

DON’T:  Schedule meetings exclusively.

Business meetings should take place in the office, not at a golf course or at bars. Otherwise, you’re giving an artificial advantage to people who feel more comfortable in those settings or whose personal interests overlap with yours. 

DON’T: Push for mandatory diversity training.

This is where most efforts to curb bias go wrong.

Mandatory bias and diversity training almost never works. In Dobbin and Kalev’s study of 829 midsize and large US firms, those that mandated diversity training for managers either saw no movement in the percentage of underrepresented groups in management or experienced declines.

In the same study, voluntary training showed the opposite effect: 9-13% increases in underrepresented groups in management across the board.

Most mandatory diversity and bias programs come with a subtle message: Complete this training or else. Threats don’t create champions. They create what I call ‘a fork in the spoon drawer.’ You know those folks who silently balk, ‘ugghhh,’ and tend to drag their feet or become impediments to the very change you are trying to create. At worst case, mandatory training can create animosity towards the groups the training was designed to support (Anand & Winters, 2008).

DO: Move towards voluntary training and let it run the spectrum.

From team building and personality inventories to How to be an Ally, let folks self-select where they want to be and watch your culture grow towards to one of inclusion and belonging. 

This is the last of my 4-part series in building diverse teams shared to improve team performance and create an inclusive culture. Most discrimination is the result of structural factors—established laws, institutional practices and cultural norms--not malicious intent. I hope these last few weeks have provided you with a nugget or two to consider that might help you think about what small, simple, significant actions you can take to foster a culture of inclusivity. 


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