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Uncomfortable Conversations: Race, Diversity, Inclusion & Belonging – 7 Key Learnings

Matt Phelan | 22nd July 2020

Recent events following the death of George Floyd and the global response of the Black Lives Matter movement have highlighted just how far we are from creating a truly equal and inclusive society.

In the powerful conversation between our Community Manager, Rosey and Shereen Daniels, Shereen urged us all to continue to have uncomfortable conversations about racism and the black experience in the workplace. She spoke of “the corporate wall of silence” that has all too often surrounded and cut off discussions of race at work.

For me it was a wakeup call, it made me reflect, I had inadvertently been part of the corporate wall of silence. Previously I hadn’t spoken out for fear of saying the wrong thing or looking stupid or as is recently the case being labelled ‘woke’. The word woke has been hijacked and people who speak out about injustice are often labelled woke, so it’s worth reminding ourselves of the definition: 

“…alert to injustice in society, especially racism”

Shereen helped me realise that not doing anything was part of the problem. I needed to step up as a leader and friend to re-examine not only diversity and inclusion in my own business but to engage in this uncomfortable conversation and push for change.

As part of my commitment to continue the conversation, I was joined by Brandon James, Margot Slattery and Shekira Khan for a full and frank conversation on race, diversity and inclusion. I’ve got so much more to learn but here are my 7 key learnings from this session.

1) The numbers don’t lie

Despite years of talk and the proliferation of diversity and inclusion roles being created in organisations the needle just isn’t moving. The number of black professionals in leadership roles has increased just 0.1% since 2014, the median national average gender pay gap in 2019 remained 17.3%, and we continue to see inherent unfairness built into our pay and reward systems. It’s clear that diversity and inclusion policies and appointments by themselves change nothing.

2) Change is in the air… but we must seize the moment

Over the last 4 months, we’ve experienced unparalleled levels of change as individuals, families, organisations and communities. I’m fortunate to spend my days talking to senior leaders across the globe, and passionately believe that this enforced change presents us all with a golden opportunity to transform for the better on many fronts.

When tackling racism, we now have a momentum for change that I don’t believe existed before. According to a recent poll released in June, 76% of Americans now say racism and discrimination are “a big problem” in the US — a 26% increase since 2015 — mainly due to the shifting understanding of white people. Whilst in the UK worrying results show that virtually identical numbers of people believe racism exists in the country today (84%) as believe it existed 30 years ago (86%). However, 43% say they are listening to and reading more about issues related to racism now than before (YouGov).

Don’t get me wrong this isn’t going to be easy. The battle for equality has long been marred by a disappointing cycle of weak promises, followed by very little real or sustained action for change.

If businesses truly stand behind their statements that Black Lives Matter, they need the moral conviction required to really examine their own behaviour and stay the course.  

3) Leaders must step up and take accountability for D&I outcomes  (embrace quantitative data)

Diversity and inclusion are at the heart of your culture and employee experience and must be treated as a foundation to your organisation’s vision and values, not just an ‘HR programme’. It must become a business imperative that gains the same attention as any key performance indicator in your business with the associated budgets, metrics and accountability. Without the CEO and top leaders’ buy-in, any diversity and inclusion initiative will have a limited impact.

Whilst partnering with employee and external groups can undoubtedly provide your organisation with guidance and feedback, you shouldn’t expect them to lead your diversity and inclusion strategy. I’ve only recently understood just how overwhelmed by racism and injustice some of my Black networks feel.

More leaders and remuneration committees need to follow the example of Satya Nadella, CEO of Microsoft, who now has a sixth of his bonus tied to diversity measures.

Diversity and inclusion programmes often focus on the qualitative aspect of equality but what has been missing is the quantitative part – measuring how people actually feel. Do they feel like they belong? Do people of all backgrounds feel they can be themselves in your business?

4) Create a safe place to listen and learn (embrace qualitative data)

So how do you start this uncomfortable conversation? We must begin by asking uncomfortable questions of ourselves, our people and actively listening — both to the data and to the experiences of our people. Give your people a safe place to share their experience and emotions anonymously and make sure you learn from and actively engage in the conversation.

Openly communicate your learnings and then hold your leadership team accountable for acting on them by sharing results with all your people. Just as you report your progress on your financial objectives you must report on your progress on your diversity and inclusion goals.

5) Empathy isn’t enough – real change requires real action

Empathy isn’t enough. Once you’ve listened and learnt, take a sledgehammer to all your people practices, policies and programmes to ensure equality of opportunity, experience and pay are embedded.

6) Remember this is bigger than just your people

It’s also critical to remember your role in influencing equality outside your organisation. You must apply the same approach to how you deal with your customers, supply chain, and the wider community.

7) We’re all biased in some way

Neuroscience teaches us that unconscious bias is both scientifically undeniable and neurologically unstoppable. We are all affected by it often driven by our family, upbringing and personal experience. Whilst research shows that training can increase our awareness and sensitivity, it won’t in itself change our behaviour. Changing our behaviour takes continued practice and will challenge us.

Summary

Those who live in glass houses should not throw stones

The Happiness Index has built a great following and we can use our own platform to give people a voice across the globe but before we move forward we need to look internally. We need to make sure we are not doing things unconsciously or systematically that makes progress within our business unfair.

We made equality a board priority in our last board meeting and since then has convened two extraordinary board meetings to make progress on this sole subject. We are now meeting fortnightly with a committed group of individuals to review everything from our product to our recruitment strategy to make sure we live up to our vision of #FreedomToBeHuman.

We have taken a few steps but we have a LONG way to go. We are not perfect but we are committed to change.

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