With the need to process the shockwaves of change that have occurred over the last month, we at Jennifer Brown Consulting (“JBC”) have found ourselves on the front lines of numerous important discussions and sharing of thoughts and ideas amongst our community of diversity and inclusion (D&I) change agents.

What we’ve felt, personally and professionally, and what we’ve heard from our workforce colleagues, have challenged us to revisit, and question, some core beliefs and practices in terms of how we “do” diversity in the modern organization.

Beginning with our first hosted online gathering on November 9th, the day after the election, and subsequent weekly online forums, we have convened hundreds of professionals, from corporate leaders to entrepreneurs to non-profit advocates, to share reactions, insights and inspiration for the road ahead.  This dynamic group cut across gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, race, ethnicity, generation, socio-economic background and political affiliation, and has been experiencing a wide variety of emotions about the impact of the election results amongst diverse communities and their workplaces.  Although greatly shaken, on the whole they remain hopeful that the work we do as advocates for inclusion will be more necessary than ever before in bridging the divides around us, but they acknowledge that we are in unchartered territory in many ways.

We’ve been discussing that it’s time to go “back to basics” – to revisit the fundamental needs to treat others with respect, and dignity, and equip individuals with the tools, safety and community support to do this. We are reminded of the timeless classic theory of motivation, the Maslow Hierarchy of Needs, especially the bottom rungs of its famous pyramid that need some extra attention right now. In recent years, the diversity and inclusion conversation in organizations has become much more visible, and as business leaders, especially executives, have become involved and more hands-on with it, we’ve been asked to lead the conversation with the business case argument, answering questions such as how prioritizing diversity helps companies attract and retain the best talent, or how will it help drive market share.  Of course, for people who feel threatened by the conversation about equal opportunity, this is a relatively safer conversation to have.  However, now more than ever, we need to focus our attention on the relative feelings of safety, security, and sense of opportunity amongst those in organizations who feel more at-risk due the messages they are now hearing—sometimes for the first time—in our environment.  The business case can only go so far.

Certainly all parts of the Hierarchy continue to still be worth reaching for. In our leadership programs for diverse leaders, we have had the privilege with some clients of spending more and more time discussing self-actualization, and what we might call “organizational self-actualization”, at the top of the Hierarchy.   In achieving this “organizational self-actualization”, organizations cultivate a true culture of inclusion where employees can bring their full selves to work and contribute more meaningfully to the overall success of the organization. This election and the subsequent reaction in our workforces and in our society demonstrate that we may not be ready to fully leap into this ideal future state without mastering the basics. Yet we must simultaneously keep encouraging all kinds of talent to hope for more, to reach for the goal of living—and working—full-time in their truth and authentic self.

For those asking “So what can I do about it?” the below best practices—and next practices—provide top line insights which are reinforced with tangible actions for each later in this article.

Best Practices: Returning to the Basics

  • Reaffirm your commitment to Diversity & Inclusion and a zero tolerance regarding discrimination.
  • Activate your existing D&I framework – e.g. Councils, ERG leaders – to inform and empower managers.
  • Beware of unconscious bias and stereotype threat. Confront stereotyping.

Next Practices: Striving for Self-Actualization

  • Expand the concept of “Allyship”.
  • Explore intersectionality as a bridge.
  • Be comfortable being uncomfortable.
  • Cultivate more deliberate inclusion.

And in the end, it bears repeating the importance of listening first, speaking second and finding common ground.  That’s a lot of what we did as a group as reflected below.

Reactions and Impact

Participants tuned into that first JBC call the day after the election with heartfelt gratitude for finding a sense of community and a safe place to discuss some raw emotions, and identify critical issues. As many of us lead inclusiveness efforts in our organizations and give a voice and support to others daily, this was a unique forum for more honesty and more personal sharing—critical processing that each of us needed to feel free to do amongst others similarly impacted, in a space where we didn’t for a moment need to “lead”, but rather just “be”.

On that first call, some were able to share insights and best practices, but most were not yet in the mode to “solve”. They reported on this “day after” that there had been an instant decline in workplace productivity, as many employees were experiencing confusion, and anxiety, about workplace dynamics, and their future prospects. We held that space for these leaders who do so much for others, to share that they weren’t yet in a position to lead on this topic authentically, and were wrestling with their own raw emotions, which felt like a priority.

There was however much discussion about the actions of senior leaders, at this pivotal moment—a moment of truth to set the “tone at the top” and send a reaffirming message to ALL employees.  Participants on the call shared news of which CEOs and companies had privately or publically reiterated their personal and organizational commitment to the principles of inclusion, diversity and respect, sharing links to communications from Pepsi’s Indra Nooyi, Apple’s Tim Cook, Starbucks Corporation’s Howard Schultz, United Continental Holding’s Oscar Munoz, GE’s Jeffrey Immelt, Google’s Sundar Pichai and LinkedIn’s Jeff Weiner to name a few.  We share a few of these messages here.

Indra Nooyi’s proclaimed on Thursday morning after the election, “Forget about the Pepsi brand. How dare we talk about women that way,” referring to Donald Trump’s campaign commentary and the Entertainment Tonight video.  At the New York Times Dealbook Conference in Manhattan, she also exclaimed “If we don’t nip this in the bud it is going to be a lethal force in society.”  Others took a more neutral stance. It was fascinating to watch the breadth of responses.

Many on the call agreed that employees are waiting and watching for reactions; if there was silence after the election, they questioned an organization’s true commitment to inclusion and respect.  If unaddressed, there was agreement that there could be serious consequences regarding employee engagement, collaboration, productivity and ultimately the culture of the firm. This was a key moment in a leader’s journey on diversity and inclusion—to make a statement, or not. We are reminded of some data here: when a company makes inclusion a priority, it is noticed, appreciated, and rewarded as demonstrated by the bottom line. Companies with an inclusive culture have 22% lower turnover rates, 22% greater productivity, 27% higher profitability and 39% higher customer satisfaction (Source: Cumulative Gallup Workplace Studies: “Business Case for Diversity and Inclusion”).

There was also acknowledgement that employees who have a personal diversity story felt further marginalized, vulnerable and even unsafe physically and psychologically as a result of the national dialogue leading up to the election, and the election results themselves which seemed to support many aspects of that dialogue.  The range of emotions was as diverse as the group on the call itself—from dejected, hopeless and scared to hopeful and determined.  Several participants reported that trust had been eroded in the workplace as employees questioned whom their co-workers supported in the election. “The leader has the biggest role in re-establishing trust,” noted one champion. “We need safe spaces and courageous conversation and we need to strive to a level of trust”.  As highlighted by Maslow, people need to feel secure and safe before they are in a position to seek love/belonging which is a psychological need. The highest level is self-actualization, achieving one’s full potential which can only be accomplished if one is able to bring one’s full self forward. Yet many in today’s workplaces were already reporting that they feel the need to cover the more stigmatized aspects of who they are. The election might have had the effect of driving more—not less—covering as the fear quotient has risen.

Despite progress in so many ways, this election brought to the forefront that we are still divided on many social and economic issues.  Beyond the workplace, people are struggling with how to speak and interact with family, friends, neighbors and strangers given the polarization that has happened. One participant shared that “It is like there was a veneer of civility before.  Clearly it was too thin.  Is it a positive or negative that this has been exposed?” Those who may have felt marginalization for the first time in their lives have now developed a greater empathy and understanding of what many groups in America have been experiencing for years.

This very much includes those of us who specialize in setting the definitions, tone, and approaches for diversity in organizations. We have been put on notice about our blind spots regarding inclusion.  One lesson is that we must be more proactive about including those who haven’t been consistently and effectively incorporated in our strategies, such as, for example, straight, white men. They report feeling left out of the diversity equation. Our piece, “Including ALL in the Diversity and Inclusion Revolution” addresses this.

We vow to redouble our efforts to ensure all voices feel “Welcomed, Valued, Respected and Heard℠”.  In that spirit, below we share Best and Next Practices to support our collective work.  Please highlight them within your organization and networks and let us know what you are seeing and hearing. To learn more about engaging leaders at all levels in organizational change regarding inclusion and diversity, pick up a copy of Jennifer’s new book, Inclusion: Diversity, the New Workplace, and the Will to Change or visit us at www.jenniferbrownconsulting.com.  Lastly, please know that JBC is eager to continue empowering you regarding this strategic business and human imperative.

Best Practices / Next Practices – Calls to Action for Leaders

As the call for liberty and tolerance were founding principles of our great nation, we seek to perpetuate an America where ALL voices are “Welcomed, Valued, Respected and Heard℠”.  We must create this culture in our homes, workplaces and communities. As a first step, we endeavor to address how best to guide, influence and inform the dialogue and action within our organizations to reaffirm commitment to full inclusion of all kinds of talent, and create workplaces that are safe havens for that talent to bring their own individual full selves to work.  We’d also like to present “next practices” to adopt now.  Please let us know what is working well in your organization so we can continue to share and amplify the impact.

Re-affirm your commitment to diversity & inclusion and a zero tolerance regarding discrimination.  Take a non-partisan approach which focuses on your organization’s core values.

    • Raise the discussion in key forums. Be bold; be authentic. Examples include: CEO messaging, town halls, year-end D&I message, Board of Directors meetings, annual reports or shareholder forums.
    • If Inclusion is not currently a company core value, start the initiative to add it.
    • Make your commitment visible publicly through leadership involvement in external organizations, pledges, signing amicus briefs, etc.

Listen first, speak second. Find common ground. Explore intersectionality as a bridge, a Next Practice.

    • Listen to understand the other person’s point of view.  Find a way to keep the dialogue going.
    • Speak your mind but mind your speak.  Words matter, so beware of triggers which may incite the other party; keep the conversation civil.
    • Find common ground to begin bridging the perceived divide. One of our participants recommended that “Focusing on what is shared by all of us will be paramount.” For example, underscore the business case that inclusion will enable us to resonate with our diverse customer base.
    • Explore how intersectionality may allow us to find shared experiences and values.  Intersectionality resonates particularly with the millennial generation and may serve as an additional bridge.  “Intersectionalities will be our triumph!” as another participant shared.

Activate your existing D&I framework –e.g. Councils, ERG leaders—to inform and empower managers.

    • Host roundtable forums facilitated by employee/business resource groups or D&I leadership councils.
    • Utilize your framework to communicate to managers that showing support doesn’t need to be a formal message.  Each of us can check in with the people with whom we work, and a conversational “I want to make sure you know you are supported” goes a long way.
    • Ensure all employees understand the business case; underscore that engaged employees lead to higher productivity, better client service, innovation and lower attrition.

Equip executives, managers and employees with the skills, insights and language to engage regarding diversity, inclusion and respect in the workplace.

    • Equip employees with critical skills via courses such as Engaging across Differences, Creating One Firm through Inclusion, Multicultural Dexterity, Crucial Conversations or other related topics.
    • Develop or update key messages for managers to utilize in team meetings, 1:1 conversations, etc.

Be comfortable being uncomfortable.  

    • Start the “diversity conversation” somewhere – e.g. at the employee resource group level where it may feel safer.  Have a cross-ERG forum versus each ERG simply talking in its silo.
    • Work with your Head of Diversity and Inclusion, Employee Relations or other appropriate representatives to help facilitate the conversation.  JBC is willing to help in this regard.
    • Recognize that you may not be fully knowledgeable about diversity-related topics. Engage in continuous learning and be open to new or different points of view.
    • Recognize the privilege that comes with being in the dominant group. This may require people to challenge underlying workplace constructs including the very premise of “meritocracy”.  A classic read is White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack by Peggy McIntosh.

Find your inner voice and cultivate more deliberate inclusion.

    • Challenge yourself to do less “covering” of your identity.  As articulated by Kenji Yoshino, “To cover is to tone down a disfavored identity to fit into the mainstream. In our diverse society, all of us are outside the mainstream in some way.” (Source: Kenji Yoshino, “Covering: The Hidden Assault on Our Civil Rights”. New York: Random House, 2006, p. ix)  As one participant pointed out, “This election has made our fight against self-imposed covering even more important.” Reach out to others; help them uncover by conveying this is a safe culture where their viewpoint matters.
    • Ensure that inclusionary leadership behaviors are incorporated into your performance competency model.  JBC can help you develop an Inclusive Behavior Toolkit for your organization.
    • Highlight leaders who are role-models for desired behaviors; enlist them to informally coach peers.
    • Inspire more intentional inclusion via grass roots efforts – e.g. provide resources that delineate acts of inclusion or create challenges and reward behaviors publically.

Beware of unconscious bias and stereotype threat.  Confront stereotyping.

    • Know that if you are human you have unconscious bias. Recognize how this bias manifests itself in people and/or business decisions and develop key tactics to mitigate it. JBC has partnered with many companies in this regard and would be delighted to provide guidance for your organization.
    • Realize that stereotype threat keeps a lot of white men away from the D&I conversation.  For more insights, check out Claude Steele’s work.
    • Don’t assume why people voted one way or another. As we heard on a call, “If we put our colleagues in boxes based on how they voted, we will further suppress dialogue which is against what D&I’s mission really is.”

Expand the concept of “Allyship”.

    • Be intentional about “inviting” the majority group into the discussion and solutions.  They may have felt excluded and may not understand how diversity pertains to them or affects the organization’s success.
    • Identify additional champions with high emotional intelligence and utilize them to advance positive culture change in their broader spheres of influence.
    • Focus on real actions that allies can take; steer away from solely passive activities. One participant on the call advised that we need to “Think critically about the limits of the ‘safety pin’.”  It is a thoughtful gesture, but “many people of color and trans folks are wary.”  You can read more here about this emerging dialogue about signs of support and ally behaviors.

Get involved in the political process to amplify your voice.

    • Activate and influence the process. One participant shared that “We need—through writing, through protest, through voting in 2018 and 2020—to be the checks and balances, so that we can preserve the more perfect union America has long held as the ideal.”
    • Be proactive; call your local, state and federal elected officials to articulate your concerns and provide ideas and recommendations that they can take forward.
    • Remember that this is our country to shape; if you love what this country represents, stay and fight for it.

Know that you can be an agent of change in small and big ways and that your actions will inspire others to do the same!

Today’s global demographic and cultural realities are shaping the workplace and our communities for future decades.  As this 2016 US election season comes to an end, the majority of us will be working together for a common goal, and it is more important than ever that we continue advancing diversity, inclusion and respect and “tackle these issues with resilience and vigor,” a call to action that resonated with us.  Don’t become complacent or let the perceived “normalization” quiet your voice or paralyze your actions. With our collective efforts, each of us has the opportunity to be an agent of change, and our collective efforts will continue to make a difference for many.

Authored by the Jennifer Brown Consulting team, December 2016, with special thanks to Elizabeth Derby, JBC Senior Consultant, and Insights from the JBC community.

Jennifer Brown Consulting (JBC) is a certified woman- and LGBT-owned strategic leadership and diversity consulting firm specializing in the future of the workforce and workplace, and dedicated to building more inclusive organizations where all kinds of talent can feel Welcomed, Valued, Respected, and Heard℠.  Based in New York City and maintaining a global team, the company partners with HR, Talent Management, D&I and business leadership on change management efforts relating to human capital, including the design, development and facilitation of customized, interactive classroom and online learning events, and is known as the creator of the ERG Progression Model℠, a proprietary development tool that facilitates the transformation of ERGs into true business partners.  Employer-of-choice clients include Cox, Capital One, Prudential, Toyota Financial Services, Wells Fargo, Thomson Reuters, Disney, New York Life, Target, the NBA, and many of the Fortune 500.  

Jennifer Brown is an award-winning entrepreneur, dynamic speaker and diversity and inclusion expert. Informed by more than a decade consulting to Fortune 500 companies, her new book Inclusion: Diversity, the New Workplace & the Will to Change creates a compelling case for leadership to embrace the opportunity that diversity represents, for their own growth and for the success of their organizations, while simultaneously empowering advocates at all levels to find their voice and be a driving force in creating more enlightened organizations that resonate in a fast-changing world. She is quoted frequently on next generation diversity and inclusion practices, has delivered two TEDx talks, and is a dedicated and visible change advocate in the LGBT and Allies community. Read more about Jennifer’s work at www.jenniferbrownspeaks.com