8 Things Diversity&Inclusion Leaders Need Everyone to Know

Not remotely an exhaustive list but a darn good place to start.

Emily Best
Jul 29, 2019 · 16 min read

This story starts, as all great stories do, with a tweet.

See, for the last seven years Seed&Spark has been helping hundreds of truly diverse, inclusive movies and shows get made from hundreds of cities outside of major film markets, and helping those creators build sustainable careers. However, we recently realized we were guilty of the kind of navel-gazing our industry is so often (and fairly) accused of. We thought our work was just about fixing something broken in the film business, to make it more equitable and diverse.

It’s not. It’s about what can happen to society and culture when those stories can really reach an audience. The work our creators are making is to build bridges, build empathy, help people see through different lenses. They are telling stories to fix what’s broken in society. Film is the means, not the end. And our work up until now at Seed&Spark is just the beginning.

There’s an entire industry of people — Diversity & Inclusion professionals — who have been doing the hard work of building empathy and understanding, building a more diverse, inclusive culture through the workplace. I wanted to learn what they know. I wanted to understand the challenges in the workplace and how film can be used as a means to that same end.

The generosity of spirit of the D&I community was apparent immediately.

So, I tweeted. I wanted to speak to 50 D&I professionals across industries, and within about a day I had hundreds of responses, many from executives at companies whose products you probably use every day. We were fully transparent: we are doing research to see if what we’ve been doing at Seed&Spark might be helpful to the D&I industry at large.

We spoke to dozens of executives from dozens of industries, from companies of 10 employees to 60,000. We spoke almost exclusively either to D&I consultants working primarily with corporations (with a few working in educational institutions) or to D&I executives working in for-profit companies, and all of those companies had US headquarters. They were remarkably generous with their time and expertise, and we realized we couldn’t keep what we were learning just to ourselves.

A note: this was not “scientific research.” We had a standard set of questions we asked everyone, but unlike a survey, these were conversations that allowed us to chase interesting ideas.

Half of Seed&Spark’s exec team (Kt, Blessing, EJ and myself) worked on this together, with at least two of us in every interview. Our collective notes — 100 pages worth — formed the basis of a research synopsis completed by Blessing and EJ. And from that evidence and being in the room (or on the phone) for every one of these conversations, eight ideas stood out loud and clear.

  1. Almost all D&I work inside companies can be captured by the following matrix:

This is a simplistic representation to understand the tenor and focus of most D&I work. It’s either about hiring or it’s about company culture (and some activities fall in various places along a spectrum). That work is either proactive (for example, “we are actively mitigating bias by working on the language in our job descriptions”) or reactive (“oops, we are getting sued”).

My extremely scientific (and artistic!) rendition of how D&I work is currently concentrated.

The vast majority of proactive D&I practices and resources across industries is being applied to hiring. The vast majority of reactive or interventionist strategies are being applied to culture: as in, something racist/sexist/aggressive has occurred in the workplace, and now everybody has to do some implicit bias training. You will see from my highly refined graphic above, there is a big opportunity in the proactive culture-building space.

2. About implicit bias training…

Implicit bias training is very often the first tool that companies use to work on inclusive workplace culture, and literally no one thinks it works as it is currently being practiced. There was this damning HBR article and also this one that seemed to confirm everyone’s suspicions. TL;DR for the most part, implicit bias training as it is most often implemented either doesn’t work or can actually be harmful because it reinforces stereotypes. Not to mention that if your implicit biases are the result of a lifetime of input and social programming, it’s unlikely you’ll overcome them in a weekend.

However, there seems to be consensus among D&I professionals that diversity/implicit bias training absolutely can work as a part of a comprehensive inclusion strategy, and that the two key factors to its success are the actual content of the training and when it occurs. Most agree that implicit bias training should come much later in a company’s overall inclusion strategy. If you are being sued for, say, gender discrimination, your company has missed too many steps already. Implicit bias training is fine tuning, not the beginning of a conversation.

“Companies that want to motivate employees to engage in new behaviors that complement and accelerate more structural efforts may find thoughtfully designed training to be an effective tool.”

— Joelle Emerson, Paradigm Strategy

(This is the nicest possible way of saying: it’s the content, stupid. Which you would never say because you work in D&I.)

3. “Diversity and Inclusion,” in that order

The resources being applied to D&I appear to be heavily weighted towards recruitment and hiring. According to our interviews, the vast majority of companies focus first on “diversity” efforts in their hiring pipeline because it’s measurable and, frankly, visible. It’s possible to see, for example, that your hiring pipeline includes more women and people of color, though there are many dimensions of diversity — like neurodiversity (and class, sexual orientation, gender identity, political affiliation and many more) — that are not visible and, as such, those are often overlooked or deprioritized.

Efforts to build an inclusive workplace almost invariably come after efforts to diversify the talent pipeline (and often not until there is a triggering event like a gender discrimination lawsuit). As a result, many companies are pipelining diverse talent into workplaces that are not prepared to support them or, in the worst cases, are actively hostile towards them. One interviewee pointed out that putting diversity hiring before building an inclusive workplace is a vector for re-traumatizing traditionally marginalized groups.

One of the few ways you would uncover a problem like this is through careful collection and analysis of survey and attrition data. Many companies with D&I strategies report employing regular employee surveys to understand workplace satisfaction. However, very few companies appear to be collecting or sharing attrition data in a meaningful way that might help surface a workplace inclusion problem to them. One interviewee described a situation in which Latinx representation in a company went up over a time period — but upon closer examination, that simple statistic actually represented an increase in entry-level hires that offset the departure of basically all of the Latinx leadership in that company. She noted that companies will typically discount or ignore the exit interview of someone who is being let go for performance issues, whereas that person may have key insights into the ways in which the workplace is failing its workers.

There is a chicken-and-egg problem with workplace inclusion: it’s harder to do and harder to measure than hiring more underrepresented candidates, and therefore is not getting the same dedicated resources that balancing the hiring pipeline gets. If it doesn’t get the same resources, it’s harder to do and harder to measure. Or if you prefer a different metaphor, how about this one:

4. KPIs, Resources and Speed: the Bermuda Triangle of D&I

Another highly scientific visualization.

This seems to be the essential conundrum of D&I work: you’re being asked to do a job in a workplace where progress is typically measured by increased profitability, and pretty much every company ever is trying to increase profitability as fast as possible all the time. D&I professionals are being asked to effectively solve huge structural problems with very limited resources on aggressive timelines — and constantly measure that progress or risk losing resources.

D&I professionals are being asked to effectively solve huge structural problems with very limited resources on aggressive timelines — and constantly measure that progress or risk losing resources.

(We are not the first ones to point this out.)

When I asked D&I executives inside even the largest organizations who else they had working with them, a common refrain was, “It’s just me” or “I have a team of two.” It appears all of them are responsible not just for inclusive workplace practices but hiring and sometimes also product and online accessibility issues and sometimes also other related corporate practices. And oh, also sometimes any PR and marketing associated with their D&I efforts. Oh, and also overseeing the activities of the Employee Resource Groups. Oh, and also surveying, analyzing the data, demonstrating the progress, iterating the process, making recommendations, fighting for resources…

One interviewee summed up their mandate from leadership as, “Here can you fix structural racism with a team of two by next Friday? Thanks!” As another said: “This describes every company hiring a head of D&I ever.” Even at companies with very good reputations around D&I, we heard over and over again that limited team members and resources are being put against monumental challenges. This forces the team to focus on what they can measure quantitatively (e.g., hiring goals).

“Here, can you fix structural racism with a team of two by next Friday? Thanks!”

For workplace inclusion efforts, survey data is really the best anyone has to measure subjective sentiments, which can absolutely demonstrate that sentiments are changing (how safe people feel in the workplace to be themselves, for example). However, it really depends on whether leadership in an organization is willing to weigh qualitative measures as heavily as quantitative measures.

And if I may just completely editorialize here for a moment: the fact that so many D&I professionals are having to constantly make the business case for D&I inside their own companies is actually infuriating. It indicates that if efforts to build a more diverse workforce and a more inclusive workplace are not demonstrably profitable on a tight timeline, it’s not worth doing. (I will have more to say about this a bit later…stick with me.)

Many seasoned D&I professionals told us that the really meaningful D&I efforts pay off 3, 5, 10 years and beyond. While it varies from company to company, there seems to be a fundamental gap between expectations and what’s possible on what timeline, and the way resources are allocated inside an organization is the main indicator.

5. Honest internal assessment is everything

Across the board, D&I professionals agree that one of the biggest barriers to building inclusive workplace practices is a company’s willingness to assess their own internal workings honestly. It’s the old “first step to recovery is admitting you have a problem.” Or, as Aubrey Blanche from Atlassian put it simply, “The single best thing companies can do for their D&I programs is to admit what they don’t give a shit about.”

When there is messaging from leadership that they care about workplace inclusion, but there are no regular practices put into place to reinforce that message, employees lose faith in the process, which makes any process harder to implement in the long run. We have seen this play out publicly: Companies leverage their visible diversity to market themselves to employees and customers as caring about D&I, and then get blown up on social media or Medium by an employee blog post airing the dirty laundry of the discrepancy between optics and practice.

Smaller companies and startups may feel like they have an easier time with culture because they tend to run more flat with everyone bearing more equal status and responsibility — if there is an internal problem, it gets to “the top” pretty quickly. That makes it easier to catch and course correct for straightforward problems, but that also means only the hardest problems are left — and at a startup where everyone is moving really fast, it can be easy to put some of those more complex problems on the backburner. This is what makes centering intentional culture-building so crucial at the early stages of building a company: the speed of the business shouldn’t overrun the time required to solve hard problems and create open dialogue.

There’s a lot of pressure on leadership at all levels to understand themselves, their core values and the resources they are actually willing to bring to bear to see those values through, and to clearly communicate the choices and trade-offs they’re making to their workforce.

6. So, about leadership…

Across the board there is agreement: representation in leadership is a hard problem to solve but has the biggest impact for both internal and external optics. The logic is simple — a great candidate is likelier to accept a position if they can see that there is a path forward for them inside a company; a company with diverse leadership is likelier to consider workplace inclusion efforts because leaders have had personal experience as being marginalized.

If a company is late to the game in thinking about a diverse workforce, or hasn’t considered what it takes to nurture its workers to become leaders, you very often see a drop-off in diversity above a certain title level. Companies are increasingly aware of this, and some experts indicated that those companies may be starting to pay a premium to retain diverse leadership both for internal and external optics. (We couldn’t glean how commonplace this practice actually is at the moment, but if this means diverse talent can demand more equity or pay because leadership is starting to acknowledge the weight of their additional emotional labor, I am HERE FOR IT.)

Just because someone belongs to a traditionally marginalized group does NOT mean that their work ambitions include D&I work.

And just a quick side note: just because someone belongs to a traditionally marginalized group does NOT mean that their work ambitions include D&I work, though that is a common expectation. It would be shrewd for leaders to take care they’re not only offering “diversity committee” positions to women and people of color, but also other company growth and leadership opportunities related to their actual work as opposed to their demographic. To wit:

7. Can we talk about Employee Resource Groups?

The formation of Employee Resource Groups seems to be the most widely adopted workplace inclusion practice. Effectively, this is a chance for employees who would normally feel that they are part of an “out group” to form an “in group” — some are primarily safe spaces where those employees can commiserate over lunch, some are highly organized and have resources for monthly cultural events that include and educate any and all employees. Inside many organizations it seems as though ERGs are able to organize events, bring in speakers, invite their colleagues to sanctioned social hours that are educational, team building and community building.

However — and this will perhaps reveal that I have never worked inside a corporation — did you know that the heads of these ERGs who are spending all this time and energy organizing and contributing to an inclusive workplace culture are volunteering their time in addition to their regular job? My jaw was on the floor when I learned this. They have whole other jobs they are doing for pay, and then are separately doing a lot of extra work for which they are not compensated. How has this become a wide practice? Oh! I remember, because the burden is on traditionally marginalized communities to do the emotional labor and organizational work to create safe spaces inside their workplace. Which is fine (I guess) for companies that factor this kind of work into performance reviews, which do affect bonuses, raises and promotions — so some ERG leaders do eventually get compensated.

ERGs seem to commonly struggle getting traction with employees who are not members of those ERGs, even though they present an incredible opportunity to learn and connect. There is often a perception that employees who are not part of ERGs aren’t welcome or don’t belong at ERG related events, and we heard from many D&I heads at companies with strong ERGs that the next frontier is creating more opportunities for intersectionality.

8. Global and remote teams: Boss level D&I

While large global companies have long had to consider how to translate company culture across oceans, it’s increasingly true that smaller companies have nationally or globally distributed teams. Some companies have entirely distributed teams. And as my dad once asked: how do you form a company if you’re not in one another’s company? (See what he did there?)

We learned there are countervailing forces in distributed teams. The first did not surprise me: race continues to be a complicated topic for global teams, as racial politics are complicated pretty much everywhere, though the problems are not identical everywhere and the fluency for discussing it as an issue varies widely from country to country and office to office. And there are the obvious challenges of how phone and email communication is handled culturally, accents, fluency. These will always be challenges. The opposing force that was reported in our interviews did surprise me: if you can’t see the person you’re working with, you’re less likely to make assumptions about them based on the way they look, you’re simply evaluating the quality of their work. Most companies acknowledge that each office (national or international) will have a micro-culture that’s often leadership driven — and there are case studies to suggest that respecting and fostering local or microcultures can drive growth. This provides a really interesting opportunity in D&I that requires further exploration.

I want to make a quick note on an absence that felt noteworthy: only one person mentioned neurodiversity as a vector for D&I work (particularly in hiring) and that person was a specialist in it. Only one person mentioned religious diversity, and she happens to be Muslim and wear a hijab. Let me be clear: I didn’t notice the absence until these were pointed out to me. In spite of the fact that I work in elevating the most diverse stories possible — and neurodiversity and religious diversity are major themes in the work Seed&Spark filmmakers are making — I missed this until it was pointed out to me. Even D&I professionals have gaps in their awareness and focus.

This inclusion gap is a microcosm for what exists inside most companies. It’s hard to notice what you don’t notice, and that has real impact: potential candidates and current employees are getting left behind or left out. D&I professionals have very regular practices for constantly trying to close that gap. They’re attending conferences, talking to their colleagues, voraciously reading. They’re conducting experiments and learning about new tools for their own development. You know, because rarely are they given the resources and time to create the same kind of regular practice for the employees they are hired to serve.

After completing the interviews, we had a better sense of why more than 250 D&I professionals might respond to a total stranger’s tweet. The people working on D&I across industries are incredibly generous, thoughtful and deeply committed to the work they’re doing. Everyone I spoke to is doing the work at one company to make the change they hope to see in our whole culture. They need all the other D&I professionals to also be successful. They’re excited when anyone else gets excited about their work, in large part because so many of them spend so much time fighting hard to get people excited about their work.

“The bottom line is people maximizing their humanity with each other. I don’t care about profit.”

-Dacia Mitchell, KQED

The work of D&I professionals is not to make one company more profitable (and if that’s your only metric for success, you’re putting lipstick on a pig), but to make society more inclusive and prosperous for everyone. They’re just like the creators on Seed&Spark — using the medium of their work as a means for cultural transformation. But artists are lucky: they can break all the rules they want to open up conversations and reach people in a different way. D&I professionals are currently charged with using traditional work ideology, rules of professionalism and business metrics to literally transform what those things even mean.

Here’s the thing: the job of building an inclusive workplace cannot be completed by a head of D&I or their small team, even with the help of ERGs. An inclusive workplace requires effort from everyone in the workplace. What that means in practice is that we have to change what we mean by “work,” what we mean by “the workplace” and what we mean by “professional behavior.” What it takes from every employee and employer to truly build an inclusive workplace culture is emotional energy, empathy and sensitivity. These are typically considered social behaviors, not things we value monetarily as a part of “work,” though we all know they are an essential part of getting a job done well in a team. The monetary value in building these soft skills may not be seen in the near term quarterly P&L but are a long term investment in sustainable systems for leadership, job satisfaction and retention. It requires patient capital — but can pay off not as an ‘HR solution’ but as a massive business strategy upside.

We are trained that what gets the best, most effective work done is a set of behavioral rules called “professionalism,” which is traditionally a certain kind of reserved stoicism: an unemotional and restrained way of being that governs everything down to the way we dress. We create a facade of comfort within very narrow unspoken rules for how to appear and behave in the workplace. (And certainly NOBODY has any BIG FEELINGS about what goes on at work. Never.) These rules are meant to pull a little bit of humanity out of all of us. And if you’re a woman or a person of color, if you identify as neurodiverse or have a physical disability, those rules were not written with you in mind. Narrowly written harassment rules may make it clear not to touch your coworker’s butt but not that microaggressions also make someone feel deeply uncomfortable in the workplace. I mean, California just had to pass a law so that Black people are not considered unprofessional for showing up at work with their hair. (That sentence is not written wrong. Click the link and see. Seriously.)

Building a meaningfully diverse and inclusive workplace can give a company the edge as an employer of choice and the capacity to drive better, more profitable decision making. That might mean that “professionalism” has to include being emotionally engaged, being open to hard conversations, and being prepared to be uncomfortable. It will also mean that “work” for every person in a company includes the time and energy it takes to consistently practice skills to close the inclusion gap. Right now, that’s the work that the dozens of D&I professionals we talked with are trying to tackle on isolated, resource-constrained islands. We see a fundamental need to drive wide engagement — to help all people see they share responsibility for this work.

So what now? If you have actually read this far, it means you really care about this stuff (and happened to have had a spare 10 minutes to travel down the rabbit hole with me). Thank you. We are, I think, appropriately daunted at the task D&I professionals have signed on for, and eager to help with the D&I obstacles of internal engagement, regular practice and transparency and trust. Our team has started building one potential tool in what will have to be a substantial toolkit for culture transformation. One that pulls people outside of their traditional work modality, engages them in a social behavior and invites a regular practice — using film! You can click here to learn more about it. We would love to hear what you think about this new offering as well as anything else you’d like to add to the list in this post.

Seed&Spark: Sparking Conversation

The stories behind connecting people through stories that…