There are some common buzzwords we use in HR when we talk about diversity. To start with, there’s that word diversity, as well as inclusion, and equity. We talk about people bringing their ‘full authentic selves’ to work. I do believe that many of us are quite sincere in wanting to create spaces where people can be their full authentic selves, whatever that means or whatever that looks like. We want our companies to be diverse in every kind of way, whether racially and ethnically, generationally, or any other -ally. We want to be inclusive and make room for everyone whether disabled or non-disabled, LGBTQ or straight. We know that our organizations will thrive when we welcome and include everyone. We know that innovation happens in diversity and not homogeneity.
But when these concepts get reduced to buzzwords, we end up with diversity programs without real inclusion. We end up with people who may look or sound different, but underneath function the same, whether they are all authentically the same or they just learn to fit in to get ahead.
Regardless of our level of sincerity and commitment, I have come to realize that it is almost impossible to create truly diverse and inclusive spaces. Because no matter what we do, no matter how welcoming we are, no matter how much of the heavy work of self-assessment, and confronting bias, and tearing down walls and building inclusivity into our organizations we do, we only influence a small part of the world our employees live in. At the end of the workday, everyone leaves your building, or signs off from your company server, or clocks out, and goes back out to the world.
We live in a world where US citizens with US passports can live in fear of deportation (is it even deportation if you were born in the US? Isn’t it exile?) because their skin is brown and they were born in a border state. We live in a world where black parents have to teach their children how to act when pulled over by the police, and yet those same parents fear that no matter how well their child behaves, he might still not make it home. Where white supremacists march openly, and the rights of those who are LGBTQ are constantly at risk of being stripped, where the simple human dignity of walking into a public bathroom is something that must be fought for, and often not won.
If you want to measure how inclusive you are, start listening to the conversations your employees are having. Can they talk openly about their fears and frustrations? Is everyone able to talk about their experiences outside your office? Do people speak about the systems and institutions that perpetuate oppression? When was the last time your employees had a candid conversation about redlining and how it affected their families? Patriarchy, white supremacy, these are hard words that we tend to want to shy away from, but they are words that impact our employees in every aspect of their lives. If folks can’t talk about these things, your organization isn’t really inclusive.
How do we build inclusive spaces? Safe spaces? We start by building honest spaces, where being your full authentic self means sharing your full authentic story. Where people grapple with the very real results of the systems that got us all here. Where those who benefit from those systems own that knowledge, and work to effect change, not only in the office but in the world. Because until we reach outside of our company walls and into the world, our best and most sincere efforts towards diversity, inclusion and equity are doomed to fail.