The number of executives with diversity and inclusion titles more than doubled between 2015 and 2020, and companies continue to add diversity leaders and entire teams to make their workplaces welcome, safe, and productive for all employees.
But before you tick the inclusion box and move on, consider that one department, one that’s often set apart from the rest, cannot make this happen for an entire company, no matter its size. It takes every single person in an organization, people managers especially.
At From Day One’s June virtual conference on bringing more inclusive approaches to diversity, five experts in diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) and employee experience spoke in a panel discussion, which I moderated, on how companies can successfully develop people managers who understand the values of equity and embrace the habits of inclusion.
Charisse Fizer said one of her first actions as chief DEI officer at AtlantiCare health system in New Jersey was adding a new core value: inclusion. This established its importance and set a standard against which people can be evaluated.
The panelists agreed that training is a necessary part of creating managers who prioritize DEI, but if you’re going to train managers, you need to train everyone.
McKendree Hickory, who leads facilitator performance and development at digital training platform LifeLabs Learning, said managers as well as all staff should receive similar training, “so that there is a really org-wide transformation,” and employees can know that their managers will be held to the same standards they are.
Consider the potential of every person in your company, because all of them will affect the DEI culture. “Everybody is a leader. A leader is somebody that is influencing somebody else,” said professional coach Nick Ferraiolo, founder of Elm City Coaching.
Training managers on awareness, but without action, can freeze progress. Hickory said LifeLabs has been most successful when focusing on behavior. “There’s a lot of research that shows that the awareness training, just the bias training, typically either leads to a reaction from people, or just doesn’t lead to change, because ‘Cool, I’m aware that I’m really biased now. But I don’t know what to do about that.’”
New managers may need a little more help than most. Ferraiolo said he has seen newly minted managers struggle, particularly if their direct reports are former coworkers. They’re not sure what kind of leader they should be, or even can be.
“It’s tough when you’re growing from a line worker, to a supervisor, to a manager, and all of a sudden your coworker is now working for you. What tools do you give your staff when you promote them? Do you help them with boundaries? How do you talk to that coworker who’s now a person that’s working for you?”
Don’t just tell people to be DEI leaders, show them how. Intel’s director of the global employee engagement program, Yuri Ramirez, described it this way: “We have to be solution-providers instead of just goal-setters.”
Once they’re trained, managers must be held accountable for the way they lead. Fizer said that at AtlantiCare, inclusion values are a part of manager evaluations. “We have added an accountability area for their performance appraisal. They get rated by the employees about how they’re actually creating this inclusive environment for the staff.”
Still, Hickory noted that, as with any area of accountability, you must make sure expectations are clear. “Before we even get to the ‘Have they failed?’ I think the organization has to do a really thorough diagnostic to actually understand, what did we ask of them in the first place?”
If you’re having trouble getting your managers to take up the DEI cause, it may be a problem of skill rather than will. “My experience is, a lot of times, it’s not a resistance to the idea, it’s either ‘I don’t know how to do this,’ or ‘I’m too scared. I’m really scared to engage in the conversation, or to do this in the wrong way,’” said Hickory.
Fizer said it’s not uncommon for managers to feel like they’re just “going through the motions” to check a box on their performance review. “We are looking to understand exactly what’s getting in the way of you being able to do what we would like you to do.”
It may help to train managers on the idea that inclusion and equity are practiced in small moments and actions. Keturah Hallmosley, who leads people experience at Seattle Children’s Hospital, reminded the audience that “a lot of times we think it’s a grandiose action,” but that turning points for good or ill can be much smaller moments like, for example, when an employee dismisses someone else’s opinion in a meeting or doesn’t give credit when it’s deserved. “It’s in those-day to-day experiences that we all really have the responsibility to demonstrate inclusion,” Hallmosley said.
If the work of DEI is to be shouldered across the organization, how can employers make sure they’re not asking too much of their managers and abdicating the responsibility? Think of it this way: Even though you’re asking managers to change the way they lead, “it’s not delegation, it’s teamwork,” Ramirez said. “It does need to start from the top, getting commitment from leaders, getting a good direction and a strategy.”
Emily McCrary-Ruiz-Esparza is a freelance writer based in Richmond, Va. She writes about the workplace, DEI, hiring, and issues faced by women. Her work has appeared in The Washington Post, Fast Company, and Food Technology, among others.