(Photo by Alvarez/iStock by Getty Images)

Growing up in a Catholic household, Rocio Lopez was always told by her mom “when you leave the house, you're acting like a queen, and when you're at home, you can act crazy.” Now a tech-strategy leader at Accenture, Lopez believes that, sure, acting in a professional way still means retaining some of that regal behavior.  However, “at the end of the day, to me it's about being human to others,” she told journalist Lydia Dishman in a conversation on cultural diversity in the workplace, part of From Day One’s recent virtual conference, “Diversity: How Employers Can Match Words With Deeds.”

In Corporate America, the whole concept of professionalism has tended to uphold standards of appropriateness dating back to Puritan pilgrims who arrived from England. It took a global pandemic, when we peered into each other's homes during work hours, to give a more holistic definition of the “human” component behind the whole idea of “acting professional.”

These extraordinary times, including a year focused on racial equity, challenged some of the stereotypes in the workplace around race, politics, mental health, and age. “When I started, ‘work self’ and ‘personal self’ are separated. Now they're blending. For the first time, it's OK to talk about politics, religion, and sexual orientation,” said La Toya Haynes, director of racial equity at Intuit. The speakers offered other observations about the ramifications of cultural diversity:

“Appropriateness” Is Not Set in Stone

Heather Tinsley-Fix, a senior advisor at AARP, noted that while a sense of appropriateness still remains a requirement, it is not fixed. “It's more about authenticity. Bringing your best self is a sign of respect for your colleagues," she said. “You have to be curious about that.”

Dion Bullock, strategy lead for diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging at the coaching firm Bravely, sees appropriateness as a layered situation. “It’s focused on agreed-upon principles where folks have what they need in the workplace,” he said. "Everyone has a different definition on what it means to act and perform respectfully. There are cultural differences around that.” One workplace, for instance, might say that having a beard is unprofessional, but other workplace cultures might welcome the hirsute look. “I would focus on continuously revisiting agreed-upon principles,” he continued, “so folks from different cultures can weigh in on what these principles are.”

Conversations Need to Take Place

Intuit’s Haynes recalls that she found it odd that an employee did not have any family pictures at their desk. Asked about this, the employee disclosed they did not want to put family pictures up because they did not have a “typical” family and wanted to avoid questions, looks, and potential discrimination. However, said Haynes, “when you don't share this, it limits an HR leader's ability to do their job. It takes some active listening, compassion, and empathy to understand the person's situation and then create the space to ask the question.”

Speaking on cultural diversity, top row from left: moderator Lydia Dishman of Fast Company, Rocio Lopez of Accenture, and Dion Bullock of Bravely. Bottom row, from left: Heather Tinsley-Fix of AARP, Denise Reed Lamoreaux of Atos, and La Toya Haynes of Intuit (Image by From Day One)

Starting these conversations calls for courage and vulnerability, as well as an assist from leaders leading by example. In the middle of the pandemic, Lopez decided to reveal the fact that she was working from the corner of her basement. “It was not until they saw me do it that they did it themselves,” she said. “When you're really demonstrating that you're a human being, that's when things start to change and people allow themselves to be who they really are. This is what generates all the goodness and creativity for people to really thrive.” One does not even have to be very aggressive about it. Denise Reed Lamoreaux, global chief diversity officer for the technology company Atos, suggests starting by putting pronouns in one's signature and linking to resources. “It's very soft,” she said. “People with a curiosity factor would click on those links.”

What’s Beyond “Office Matters”

It’s important to recognize what's going on outside the office too. “Acknowledge a moment in the world that's happening,” said Bullock. “We talk a lot about supporting employees in moments that matter. Think of the Jan. 6 insurrection, when a lot of people were just concerned and worried about what is happening within the state of the world, and being able to be empathetic and create that space. Recognize that, even though we may have a calendar full of meetings, we know that everyone's paying attention to the news. So what does it mean for managers and leaders to be able to create space and support as folks are going through these particular moments?” Such outside events can be personal, social–or even natural disasters. Bullock and his team assisted their employees and coaches who were in Texas during the deadly winter storm earlier this year. "Recognizing that there are things that impact them outside of the workplace is really important,” he said.

Today’s Older Workforce Is Not the Stereotypical “Old” Workforce

It's clichéd and inaccurate to think that young people are naturally more primed than their elders towards being more open and vulnerable, said AARP’s Tinsley-Fix. “To me, the most important thing is to adopt a growth mindset. And there's this myth that older people slow down. Actually, older brains are just as plastic, the plasticity is just somewhere else.”

“People are working 10 to 15 years longer than ever before. And there is still a place and the right to continue to work,” said Lamoreaux. “And I know that being part of an affinity group that is dedicated to the different generations and so forth can make a big difference in people feeling comfortable speaking out. They kind of find their voice within that group of people.”

No, the Pandemic Was Not the “Great Equalizer”

During the Covid-19 lockdown, a great deal of attention was paid to the remote-work phenomenon, in part because it was revolutionary and created a sense of democratization among knowledge workers. However, that affect has been highly variable across industries, a kind of diversity that needs to be acknowledged. “It's not true that everybody was working from home,” Bullock emphasized. “A lot of communities, essential workers, were much more vulnerable. When you see the data, you see it across racial lines. Covid as an equalizer has not been the lived experience for a lot of communities.” Even the current return-to-work campaigns tend to fall short of reality, especially in contexts that employ both knowledge workers and in-person workers. The latter group has been in the workplace all along.

Personal situations come into play too. “There's a huge amount of isolation that occurs amongst people, for varying reasons,” said Lamoreaux. “Some of it is socio-economic, some of it is just that they were more introverted to begin with. There's so many different facets that come into play. So it's important for leaders to understand what the different types of people represented within their teams are experiencing.”

Angelica Frey is a writer and a translator based in Milan and Brooklyn.