In order to truly increase inclusion and diversity in the workplace, employees need to initiate those awkward and sometimes painful conversations around prejudices, according to a panel of experts at Fortune’s Most Powerful Women Next Gen Summit in Laguna Niguel, Calif.
Organizational systems of promoting diversity like bias training and pipeline programs are necessary, said Dara Treseder, chief marketing officer of digital manufacturing company Carbon, “but we actually have to talk and have a conversation, which is really hard.”
The old-fashioned idea that people shouldn’t get personal or talk about internal struggles in the workplace, she explained, is not actually polite or helpful. “Bring your full self” to the office, she said (though, she jokingly caveated maybe not every aspect of one’s personality needs be on display, “there are parts of me that nobody needs to see at work.”)
So how do employees navigate these tricky discussions?
“People don’t want to ask questions because they’re afraid, and we need brave spaces where we can have real dialogue as people,” said Treseder. She suggests that one way to facilitate this is by always assuming noble intent.
“I can respond to you from a place of trust and not fear. If you assume noble intent, when you cross the line, and I let you know, you can understand pain and empathize and we can move forward together,” she said.
But, intent isn’t always noble, and “being able to discern that is very difficult,” said Karla Monterroso, CEO of Code2040.
“[Majority culture employees] who are threatened will say things as though they’re innocent, but it’s intended to divide and conquer,” she said. “When folks don’t have experience conversing about exclusion, anything being said can be misconstrued by another person very easily. What someone says isn’t necessarily what someone else hears.”
One way to overcome that is by workplaces facilitating those conversations, and making sure diversity specialist roles are high-level jobs. The goal—not an easy one to accomplish—is to systemize human courage.
Dalana Brand, vice president of people experience and head of inclusion and diversity at Twitter, said that in order to accomplish their goal of making the social media platform the “most inclusive tech company in the world,” every performance review includes a discussion of how the employee has made efforts to break down barriers to inclusivity. It’s about creating and promoting a culture, she said. In reviews, employees are asked to note what they’ve done “to make the company a better company.” Brand says all employees are asked to join two employee resource groups: “one you identify with, but one you want to be an ally to.”
Inclusion, she said, isn’t a pipeline issue. It happens “in moments between two people. It’s not a program or initiative. It has to be between people in those quiet moments and not so quiet moments.” It’s also important to remember, she said, that at the end of the day “inaction is action,” and “when you’re not being an ally, you are taking action to not make the company and the world a better place.”
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