This blog was co-written by Helen Zarba and Michelle Kang, VP, Client Relations.
This comment was made in a recent call with members of our African Heritage Employee Advisory group: “I am not certain that my coworkers understand my feelings around recent events; it is the elephant in the room.” It reflects some of the painful and heightened emotions that employees are struggling with in light of violence and racial tension in their communities and in the news. At the same time, our childcare teachers have been dealing with an upsurge of questions from children about things heard on television or from their parents.
Our education and development department has begun offering new resources to teachers to help them discuss challenging topics with children. But what about our employees?
How can we help our leaders to create safe spaces for this kind of BIG talk (because this is far from small talk)?
Put your own discomfort aside and ask employees what they need. Some people might want to discuss their feelings at a staff meeting; others might prefer to have a discussion with a small group. Some people are uncomfortable about additional attention. But most everyone will appreciate an environment in which they are asked for their thoughts and celebrated and cherished for what makes them uniquely who they are. Remember that everyone is different and avoiding a topic looks like you don’t care.
Pay attention to what is going on in the news, in your neighborhood, and in the communities you and your employees live and work. If something occurs that may impact your people, ask if they are doing ok. If they don’t want to talk about it, let it go. But stay close.
Authentic leadership means sometimes sharing when you are also feeling scared, confused, hurt or angry. Do this in a way which embraces other (sometimes quite different) reactions. And end with a commitment to continuing to work together for better understanding.
Insist on curiosity, not judgment
For truly inclusive workplaces, this is an area you cannot afford to fail in as a leader of diverse groups. Remain curious about all of your employees, their cultures, their opinions, and insist that your team does the same. Look for opportunities to intentionally showcase the differences between employees. Show no tolerance for judgement, stereotypes or attempts to thwart dialogue.
Take the time to listen
Never discount a bias that an employee tells you they are experiencing. In a recent leadership program, one of our employees explained to us why she feels it is still hard for women of color to succeed in leadership. We all listened. It was a passionate and moving account and we all learned a great deal about our colleague’s reality. How many times a day do we miss those opportunities to find out what the person we sit next to every day’s experience truly is?
Inclusive Workplaces: Creating Safe Spaces for Dialog
Our employee advisory groups have been safe places for us as an organization to create more dialogue around these often uncomfortable topics. However, the work of creating vibrant, diverse teams in inclusive workplaces truly belongs to every one of our managers and leaders.
No diversity awareness program or message from senior leadership can make up for a feeling at work that it is not safe to talk about what matters to you. Even the highest performing teams have the opportunity to step back and have meaningful conversation about personal values and how they shape individual perspectives. We challenge all of our leaders to step up and engage in these crucial conversations so that all of our employees feel heard and seen.