After the U.S. Supreme Court decision revoked affirmative action in June of 2023, media jumped on the story and seemed to amplify the demise of diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts. Where better to get an understanding of where we really are with these initiatives than a human resources conference devoted to inclusion? I was privileged to attend such an event – the SHRM Inclusion conference in October.
The conference used to be called The Diversity Conference, but with both the browning and greying of America and recognition that there is diversity in much of the population already (if not in every organization), the focus has shifted from a need for diversity to one of being inclusive. Conference topics included pay equity, racism, LGBTQIA+ issues, ADHD, the need to respect cognitive diversity, and for greater empathy, and more.
Given my recent first experience with Covid-19 and not yet up to travelling, I was thrilled to be able to attend virtually. Right from my sign-up with the conference, I recognized an organization that was living its values and designing for inclusivity. A hybrid event takes more planning, coordination, and management to pull off. Doing so means many more people can attend. Inclusivity and accessibility in action.
I want to highlight three conversations that shine a positive light on the future of DEI.
1. Rethinking DEI in a Divided Era
with Johnny C. Taylor, Jr. and Professor Erec Smith
In the preamble to his discussion with Professor Erec Smith, SHRM CEO Johnny C. Taylor, Jr commented on the affirmative action decision. While U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sotomayor called it “an attempt to put lipstick on a pig”, Johnny sees the fact that the Supreme Court decision included “no prohibition of considering an applicant’s discussion of how race affected his or her life” as a lone point of optimism amid an otherwise negative decision.
Johnny and Erec discussed the need to rethink DEI in an era where polarization is rampant. This divisiveness is exemplified by the fact that 50% of sophomores do not want to room with people of different political opinions and their perception of disagreement as an attack.
Erec invited us to look for adaptive rather than only technical solutions. Example: a car has been damaged in an accident. The technical solution is to fix the damaged car. The adaptive solution is to stop the alcoholic from drinking which is what lead to the accident.
Patience is required to seek such remedies and look for nuance. Erec suggests that “a mind that can’t grasp nuance can’t grasp reality.” He encourages learning how to talk with each other about these issues, to value discourse and then to learn how to work together. It sounds simple, doesn’t it? Truth is, most of us have not been taught how.
2. Turning Divisiveness into Inclusiveness – Focusing on Civility and Honesty in Converation
with Melonie Parker (VP and Chief Diversity Officer, Google), Gloria Goins – Chief Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Officer, Cisco, and Marissa Andrada – Culture Master and Kindness Catalyst, Board Director, Krispy Kreme in a panel with SHRM’s Jim Link.
Marissa Andrada talked about co-creating desired behaviours with employees. She suggested that you can tell when your DEI initiatives are working because they start to spread organically. An example is Starbucks’ baristas recognizing they wanted to start treating each other in the caring way they were treating customers, with “green apron” behaviours.
Gloria Goins spoke about having such strong value alignment with your organization that you decide to “promote yourself” to customer if alignment is lacking. That line got a chuckle.
We hear a lot of talk about the need for empathy. Jim invites Marissa to expand on a quote she is known for saying: “Civility is an outcome of empathy”. Marissa invites us to step up from the golden rule – to treat others as you would like to be treated, to the platinum rule – to treat them as they wish to be treated.
Melonie Parker shared her strategy for interacting with people who are no longer listening. She just stops talking and when she finally gets a chance to speak, asks them if there is anything else they want to share in a very calm way. “Until they get everything out…they’re not listening to you.”
She acknowledges “Who I am managing in that moment is myself.” Melonie adds that this does not work in social media where conversations may be better muted. It’s also the reason why Melonie says that at Google, you are not able to ask an anonymous question.
Marissa talks about having grace, especially in tough situations where people are “coming at you”.
Gloria refers to courageous conversations this way: “It is telling Gloria the truth the way Gloria needs to hear it. It’s not passive-aggressive. It’s not ignoring the issue. It is empathy. It is respectful. It is purposeful… It is implicitly inclusive because you’re centering who I am. Where it gets crunchy and difficult is we don’t like discomfort.
“We need to lean into the resistance that discomfort brings us.
“In order for you to have inclusion innovation, you have to have a mechanism to deal with creative abrasion, aka conflict.
“It’s making sure we have the right muscles and the right mechanisms to manage, to channel, to optimize, to direct the conflict points on purpose.”
Beyond the need for crucial conversations, Gloria highlights the costs of exclusion boldly stating that “we are literally physically and physiologically killing each other.”
Exclusion has serious negative health consequences, and when one person is hurt, the consequences spread to their ecosystem.
It is a societal business imperative because we are killing one another. And so it becomes incumbent upon all of us. …it is on us to take that mandate.“
Melonie then suggests we also need standard codes of conduct to guide our responses. As an admin in a Facebook group of about four thousand members, I have seen an increase in incivility and fully agree. The rules we create give us something to point to that participants are aware and will benefit from being reminded of.
Gloria later shares that “how we treat others is not a reflection of the way they are, it’s a reflection of who we are.”
3. The Commitment for DEIA in the Workplace, Post the Affirmative Action Decision
with panelists Alysia Hacket – Chief Diversity Equity Officer, U.S. Department of Labor, Charles Barber – Chief Diversity and Inclusion Office, National Science Foundation. Constance Mayer – Acting Chief of Diversity, U.S. Department of State, and moderated by Dr. Janice Underwood, Director of the Office of Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Accessibility (ODEIA) at the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) for the Biden-Harris administration.
The first invitation was to recognize the importance the government has placed on DEI & A and download Executive Order 14035. The government is the largest employer in the United States with 2.1 million civilian employees and another 2.3 million in the military community. Panelists are members of the U.S. Chief Diversity Officer Council.
They invited connections on LinkedIn and to reach out to ODEIA@OPM.gov.
I heard a commitment to “mirror the people we serve” from Alysia and from Connie an affirmation that the U.S. State Department does not reflect the makeup of the country.
When relaying the challenges that DEI efforts are bringing in poor talent, Dr. Underwood stated, “We are not trying to hire unqualified people. We are trying to increase accessibility.”
The U.S. State Department was the first to conduct a workforce demographic report. Alysia shared how important it was to disaggregate the data to really understand it. Also, to look at the whole hiring cycle, not just recruiting, right through to performance appraisal and reward systems. She shared the OPM DEI Strategic Plan and the ONE Virginia DEI Strategic Plan to help organizations. Here is an example of the ONE Virginia Plan for Higher Education. Virginia was the first in the nation to have a statewide strategic plan for DE & I.
When Chuck hears advocacy for a meritocracy, he points out that meritocracy doesn’t take into account that we all have different starting lines in life or the bias in talent management systems. He suggests we must look at keystone behaviours and processes that contribute to under-representation, inequities and degraded belonging.
Alysia reminds us that the most senior commitment is a must. “This position must report to the top of your organization. DEI has no lane. We belong in every part of the organization.”
In the face of political initiatives that challenge the work such as eliminating Connie’s position and reducing her salary to $ 1, they will just rebrand because the work matters, has positive impacts, and helps the bureau.
Dr. Underwood shared Equal Employment Opportunity Commission Chair Charlotte Burrows’ comments after the affirmative action decision that “DEIA for the federal workforce or the workforce writ large remains lawful, permissible, and these are best and promising practices.”
Comments in the chat for this breakout session were that it ought to have been a main session where everyone could have heard this positive and deeply encouraging message to keep the conversations and actions going.
I have had and look forward to the privilege of interviewing other speakers from the conference. Check out the Happy Space Podcast for a compelling conversation with veteran advocate and author Michael Bach – episode 35 dropping on December 5th. Stayed tuned for discussions with Maria Ross, author of “The Empathy Edge”, and Seramount Director Katie Mooney. And while you’re there, check out the many other episodes exploring inclusivity.
Check out the SHRM Inclusion 2o24 conference happening in Denver, Colorado and virtually from November 4-7, 2024.