2020 was a year that changed the world in many ways and raised the stakes for organizations, governments and institutions walking the talk when it came to diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI). Even though the call for inclusion was not new, a lack of commitment to creating change became a very real reputational risk as the fight for social justice took on a more urgent tone.
A New Era in Brand Communications
In late 2020, I was talking to my friend Susan Diaz, a fellow communications leader in Canada, about how the growing movement prompted many brands to take a stand on social justice issues with varying degrees of authenticity and success. As women of color in communication leadership roles, we paid close attention to companies’ new DEI commitments and examined our own role in being agents of change within our spheres of influence. We wanted to find a productive way to channel our own frustrations with the barriers faced by marginalized people in the workplace and learn from the trailblazers who are advocating to create true change.
This urge to learn and unlearn out loud led to the launch of ABCDEI, a podcast that focuses on unlearning bias by taking a cue from child-like learning. We have learned so much from the guests we spoke to in season one. Here are five lessons that are universal to leaders in any realm:
1. There are no diversity mascots. Too often, an individual in a predominantly white workplace may feel pressured to speak for all forms of diversity. This is not possible nor fair to any individual. Don’t put the weight of representation on one person’s shoulders. The BIPOC community is not a monolith, nor is the LGBTQ2S+ community, or any other marginalized group for that matter. Seek diversity when building your team, and give people who bring different lived experience the power, platform and support to create change.
2. Silence is a privilege in and of itself. Silence isn’t golden when it comes to the hard work around creating inclusion and equity. There is growing understanding that not being a racist isn’t enough; you have to be actively antiracist to create change. If you have any level of privilege, you cannot afford to turn a blind eye when you see people from underrepresented groups be overlooked, discriminated against or shut out of inner circles just for being who they are.
Silence is complicity, and so is benefiting from a system that doesn’t value lived experience. Remember that silence isn’t an option for many, so be prepared to listen when they say their part.
3. Level the playing field. Marginalized talent must often work twice as hard for the same recognition that those with privilege receive. If you want to be an ally, sponsor those who haven’t had as much opportunity to have their moment.
The formula for building equity in the workplace starts with acknowledging that doing so isn’t creating a handout. Marginalized people are qualified; they’re just held back by process, preference and policies.
4. Challenge the status quo. Don’t get defensive about the processes in place at your workplace. They may have been the norm at one time, but just as technology has advanced, so must corporate culture. Look at existing policies with an intersectional lens and be open to changing, replacing and retiring policies that hold back certain marginalized groups from advancement and fulfillment. Create safe channels to seek the input of those who feel held back. There’s plenty of opportunity for everyone.
5. Put a value on lived experience. When you’re looking for your next hire, think critically about the lived experience that will add value to the role before you start the interview process. Don’t fixate on 15 years of experience or a degree from a specific university. Instead, break it down into what the role entails: people management, the ability to negotiate strategic partnerships or a solid understanding of the industry you’re in. Prioritizing lived experience over credentials candy will rarely lead you astray.
Through upskilling, creating equitable opportunities for advancement and mining for transferrable skills, you can actively seek ways to set up those who are “not the norm” for success. On the other hand, make space at the top to ensure leadership is well-represented. For this to happen, we have to move past antiquated notions of candidacy based on apples-to-apples experience. I would argue that experience at an after-school program or managing a quick-service restaurant is the perfect launch pad to a career in customer relations, client service or even crisis communications.
When we are dealing with rectifying centuries of deficit, remember that marginalized talent will inevitably make mistakes in the early days of change. When they do, double down on supporting them. Don’t hire differently to check a diversity box. Do it when you have a clear plan to adapt your culture to accommodate people from marginalized groups.
Rohini Mukherji is the co-host of ABCDEI, exploring topics related to diversity, equity and inclusion with a focus on unlearning bias. With more than 15 years of experience in Canada and a short stint in Beijing, China, Mukherji has a demonstrated track record of leading smart, compelling and award-winning 360 campaigns for clients in the B2B and B2C space. Mukherji is an empathetic leader and an advocate for more inclusive and equitable workplaces in Canada. Outside work, Mukherji is the marketing committee chair of the Canadian Public Relations Society Foundation, whose work is focused on making the PR industry more inclusive.