The last two years have been full of talk about how companies have become “comfortable with being uncomfortable” around discussions on social issues that are often the source of division and animosity across various groups.
More often than not, those conversations tend to be a bit one-sided if not executed in a way that invites opposing points of view and creates an environment of inclusivity. The discussion is a key element because, as is often noted by DEI experts, if they’re not involved in the discussion, they’re probably not listening either.
It is also possible that there will always be a certain segment of employees who simply do not engage with DEI, either in a topical sense or in a support function such as joining your ERGs. However, understanding this reality does not imply acceptance of a workplace culture in which DEI is only spoken to by historically marginalized communities.
To shape programs that resonate and inspire change, companies need to focus on constructive dialogue that challenges preconceived notions people may have about not only DEI but society itself. For some of the people who will be present in your trainings, basic facts such as the existence of systemic racism or the commonality of microaggressions will be misunderstood. The only way to change perceptions is through explorative and educational dialogue.
A Matter of Language
When it comes to your culture, your approach to DEI conversations and the engagement your employees have with it, the language you use to describe it matters a great deal. We’ve heard this referred to as “courageous conversations” in the past.
“We called them courageous conversations, and that was a lesson learned because people called out that it wasn’t courageous. If it were courageous, we would’ve been talking about this for years, not just now,” Mark King, Vice President of Global Diversity at WestRock, said at DiversityInc’s 2021 Women of Color and Their Allies event. “But it opened the door over the course of the year, and we did it several times. We had people come forward and say they had felt like they never had a chance to express how these things affected them. It’s not something that shows up on a scorecard, but it did have an impact on people.”
The term “courageous conversation” isn’t totally inaccurate, as candid conversations around race do require a bit of bravery not only from those participating but the company for facilitating it. The emphasis on courage, however, also relays a certain difficulty to participants that can cause some to be more hesitant or guarded during discussions.
The terms “think tank” or “workshop” imply that people need to bring ideas to the table or that the purpose of the discussion is to seek out or review methods for improving company stances, policies and practices around specific issues, highlighting how we as a society can be better. This sort of inclusive language suggests that it’s a discussion and an opportunity to learn about differing points of view. It’s a chance for those who don’t understand the importance of DEI or the views of the groups promoting it while also having questions answered. If left unaddressed, these unanswered questions can lead to a lack of commitment or even belief in the validity of DEI efforts.
There is then the issue of the language used in the conversation itself. The corporate world often shifts its language but has become accustomed to certain terms that, on the surface, sound good but may not reflect the reality of the company. The language or terminology can also feel out of context in certain situations.
For example, the phrase underrepresented groups or underrepresented minorities is now used with regularity, but in the context of a DEI conversation, that may not feel accurate at the moment. Instead, a term like “historically marginalized groups” rings truer and has an evergreen quality because it recognizes that these groups have been systemically excluded over many years, further highlighting the need for such conversations in the first place. Some companies have addressed the representation gap with a certain level of intentionality, and as the conversations unfold, DEI efforts will likely move forward with the same scope.
Discussions around these topics can ignite passionate or emotional responses. Issues of race or discrimination of any kind are not easy, hence the mantra of “being comfortable being uncomfortable.” But without proper guardrails to keep the conversation contained to the moment and productive in nature, things can get out of hand.
Some key elements of successful guidelines include:
- Listening without interrupting
- Avoid criticism of individuals; challenge negative social norms
- Disrespectful language
- Avoiding judgment in response to questions
- Encourage humility and open the door to vulnerability and curiosity
- Encourage empathy
In laying out the guidelines for such a discussion, it’s important to address people’s hesitancy to participate. After all, if they don’t participate, they likely aren’t listening and absorbing the information. To examine the hesitancy, the conversation could explore why it’s difficult to discuss. The reasons could be because people are afraid of how they’ll be perceived or that they’ll become emotional. Laying these concerns to rest and focusing on what can be gained from the conversation are crucial steps and a best practice. Focusing on the end goal and how the people in the room can support it will help keep the conversation focused and constructive.
In doing this, people who challenge DEI practices are more likely to open up, engage in dialogue and hopefully change those sentiments. This approach is far more effective and engaging than a typical training or lecture-style talk. When things resonate on a personal level, they remain in the memory longer and inspire action faster.