While culture fit has always and will continue to be one of the biggest elephants on the table in our corporate workplaces, race, gender and other biases based on visual cues are now standing alongside this elephant, screaming to be addressed head-on. This ever-increasing need has been made even more evident by the multiple cases of police brutality, bringing the uncomfortable topics of race and racism into our living rooms over and over again. As a Diversity and Inclusion professional, I saw these topics carry into the workplace, vocalized especially so by the Millennials, a generation that sees fewer and fewer boundaries between work and life. Trump has further brought this topic to light, making it very clear that there are people in this country who not only fully support discrimination, in all its forms, but also think it valid to fully voice, embody and act on them in the Presidential arena. All in all my friends, we are living in a time that is so advanced in so many ways, but so constrained by the very nature of bias that is deeply embedded in our brain patterns. What are we then to do about it in the corporate workplace? My recommendation is to have those uncomfortable conversations about bias that bring the heart of the matter to the forefront. Without these conversations, we are never, ever going to be able to make true progress.
Having these conversations is more than uncomfortable. They are emotional topics and thus wrought with tension. Conversations such as these are also not one-hour or even one-day conversations. They need to be ongoing, which is a challenge, but also a great opportunity for companies to think about these dialogues as being different from traditional unconscious bias training, which addresses the brain, but not the heart of the matter. These topics are real. They are raw. And, they are messy. This is why workplaces often ignore and bypass direct discussions of and around these topics. I get it. I really do. However, I do not think these reasons justify the potential value-add of embracing this huge elephant that has been standing in not only our corporate workplaces, but in our country, for over fifty years.
The above need directly relates to both the attraction and retention of diverse talent. In a recent conversation with a tech executive, I was asked how I would go about recruiting Black engineers. While sourcing channels are an obvious first place to start, the real crux of the solution lies in addressing the lack of diversity in tech, not from a numbers perspective, but from a human perspective. One way to do this is for companies to step forward and have those uncomfortable conversations when recruiting talent, especially at the historically Black and Hispanic colleges and universities. Tech companies cannot expect to show up at, for example, Howard University, without having shown up for years, and expect that students will come running to an information session on a company that is not only 3,000 miles away, but also one that has received negative press for its lack of diversity for multiple years. It’s just not going to happen. This type of following and trust takes time and authenticity. So, instead of dancing around the fact that there are only a small number of Black and Latino employees at one’s tech company, address it head-on. Be prepared to answer the tough questions, such as “What is it like to be a Black/Hispanic (or other underrepresented minority) at (Company X)?” or “What is it like to be one of the few Black/Hispanic (or other underrepresented minority) employees at (Company X)?”
These same types of dialogues turn into Town Halls or even Forums at the corporate level, offering employees the same opportunity to address this elephant. This opportunity could, in turn, translate into the retention of diverse talent. Of course, learning, development and promotion opportunities, and a deep analysis of potential biases within a company’s processes and systems, cannot be ignored nor replaced with this open dialogue alone. However, it certainly will be a great supplement to what has thus far been mainly a data and intellectually driven conversation. What would this type of Town Hall or Forum look like? I imagine one in which employees and executives sit down and openly discuss these topics, with an outside moderator, in a way that protects and supports everyone, both legally and personally. It would be a place void of PowerPoint slides and modesty, and one filled with the realness needed to drive productivity and innovation.
My point regarding innovation is key, for without innovation, the tech industry is dead. These conversations, and the ability to openly have them and admit that there is indeed a huge problem in this country that has not so subtly made its way into the corporate workplace, is a huge risk. However, the ability to take calculated risks is also what fuels innovation and thus a cornerstone of every tech company’s DNA. It only makes logical sense then for tech to lead the way and take the leap that is needed by bringing this open dialogue to the table.
While this solution is not going to solve tech’s diversity issue, it will address the elephant that has been sitting on the table for so long. While unconscious bias training addresses the issue, it only skims across the surface of a much deeper, systemic issue that today’s current events and political climate have brought into each and every one of our homes. It is time to address this topic head-on, both transparently and honestly. This is one important way in which companies can help to move both their diverse talent attraction and retention initiatives forward, while at the same time tackling an important topic. All in all, it is time to change the dialogue from one just about the intellectual nature of bias to one inclusive of this and the real emotional side of how bias impacts each and every one of us every day, in our hearts, in our communities and in our workplaces. It is only when all of us have the courage to do so that we will be able to make progress in the diverse talent space, and allow this elephant the breathing room it needs to let out a big sigh of relief.