I'm a black woman, which is hard to be in this world--let alone in corporate America. Thankfully, within my HR career, I've been blessed with leaders, mentors, and co-workers to whom I can relate and be myself with. I have had terrible bosses before, though. I've worked in toxic environments and even been called a racial slur while on. the. clock. Trust me, I know that it isn't always practical to step outside the lines and challenge norms or assumptions but it's so worth it. And when you can, you should.
I started my corporate career in the diversity & inclusion space almost five years ago and am back in D&I, as of this Monday so it's actually my job to help foster a diverse and inclusive workforce and pipeline of talent. In the time between when I first started and now, I've also worked in compliance and employee relations but have really been promoting diversity all along. And below are a few simple ways you can promote diversity within your office, company, and industry even if it's not in your job description!
Show Up as Yourself
Easier said than done, I know. But the cost of not doing so is high. I'm not saying you should come to the office in socks and slides. Professionalism is still very important, however, there's a difference between being professional and being someone else. American society--including the workplace--is largely dominated by white, male, heterosexual norms that simply don't apply to or include everyone. So fitting into that mold is what is traditionally deemed as professional. But, much like the European standard of beauty we've all been force-fed for centuries, that ain't it! Our parents and their parents before them had to cover parts of themselves and assimilate pretty much everywhere outside of their homes in order to survive and advance but times are changing. Now, I'm not going to lie to you and say that I never code switch. What I will say is that showing up as your full self at work has many benefits that extend beyond just you. Here are my top two:
- It helps to normalize and educate people on cultures outside the mainstream.
- It improves representation for those who look up to us and will one day join the workforce.
Natural hair is an easy example that comes to mind. Many of us wear protective styles (braids, wigs, etc.) for convenience so not wearing your natural hair to work isn't always a form of covering but, if you are afraid to let your fro flourish freely, imagine the impact that representation will have for a young curly-haired girl coming after you. And, if a coworker touches your hair (been there!) or asks questions, that moment when you
check educate them is helping to normalize natural hair in the workplace. 🙂
Join an Employee Resource/Affinity Group
Employee resource groups (ERGs) are also known as employee resource networks or affinity groups. They exist to bring together and provide a platform/safe space for [typically underrepresented] employees with common characteristics. And they serve many purposes in an organization--like helping build community and ensuring company culture is inclusive. These can be groups for women, women in specific fields like engineering, LGBTQ employees and their allies, veterans, working parents, etc. and there are many case studies detailing the benefits of ERGs for both employees and employers. Companies will sometimes tap an ERG in order to better understand employee and customer needs within that demographic. Members of an ERG can help amplify the voice of a particular group within their organization. And if no groups like these exist within your company, think about starting one!
Be a Mentor
If you have ever had a mentor in your life, you know the power of this kind of relationship. Good mentorship experiences can be formal or informal and often pay dividends long after they've ended. The mentors in my life have mostly been women and often women who looked like me, which helped me to visualize myself in spaces where I didn't yet have experience or confidence. I hope to be that for other young women. Even if your company doesn't have a formalized mentoring program, you can find ways to engage and establish rapport with junior employees.
Truthfully, organic, informal mentoring relationships tend to have the strongest impact. Outside of your company, professional and industry organizations like NSBE, SHRM, and NSHMBA, your sorority or fraternity, religious institutions, and local volunteer groups are great places to start if you're looking to reach back in this way. Mentoring students is another worthy option. I have personal experience with mentoring through the Junior Capital Advocacy Project here in Houston and recommend it.
Leverage Your Influence
If you're in the position to make decisions about suppliers, vendors, etc. at your place of work, be intentional about presenting options run by or in support of underrepresented groups. These include veterans, people with disabilities, women, and more. If you've been reading here for a while, you know that I enjoy supporting local, black-owned, women-owned, etc. businesses in my free time. Well, guess what? I keep that same energy at work. Something as simple as suggesting a minority-owned catering company for a departmental event is impactful in that it not only supports that business but exposes it to people who might not otherwise come across it.
Asking questions makes people think without blatantly calling them out. When done correctly, it's professional, conversational, and causes the other person to look inward. While the effect might not be immediate, it typically works. If someone makes an offensive comment, rather than turning up with them or shutting down the conversation, I tend to ask "What do you mean by that?" or "What makes you think that?"
When a person has to explain their biased thinking, they often...can't. It also becomes clear to them that I'm not a receptive ear to nonsense--also known as not the one. 🙂 Now, some comments are simply too egregious to even engage with. If you feel your blood pressure rising, it's probably better to pursue other channels (HR, management, ethics, etc.) than get baited into a negative conversation. Some people simply cannot be reasoned with or are solely seeking a reaction. Challenging harmful biases helps break down the mental barriers to diversity.
I hope these ideas for promoting diversity at work are helpful to you and would love to hear about your career experiences, especially as they pertain to diversity and inclusion. Let's talk about it in the comments below--and thanks for reading!
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