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By: Paul McGee on July 7th, 2021

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One Leader’s Personal Journey Through Diversity Awareness

Employee Relations | DEI

We recently celebrated Juneteenth as an official federal holiday, making June 19 the national day to commemorate the end of slavery in the United States. It’s a day of reflection for many of us, as we look back on the injustices of the past and ask ourselves: what can I do to make a better future.

I have been reflecting upon my own personal journey over the past year. Like many others, after seeing the racial unrest and protests in response to the murder of George Floyd, I have been focused on learning and becoming more aware of other life experiences outside of mine.

As a senior HR consultant with Helios HR, I’ve always been a supporter of diversity and inclusion. I always have made efforts to foster a welcoming environment for employees, and helped clients take a more diverse approach to recruitment. Yet, in my diversity journey — and we all are in a different place in our journey — I’ve come to realize how privileged I am. As a white male who had the opportunity to attend great schools, yet I was rarely educated about the lived experiences of people from less privileged backgrounds.

And while it’s not often spoken about, I know that I’m not alone in this. Many leaders have grown up similarly to me and shy away from such topics because they may believe they already have a fair and equitable workplace. That may be true to some extent, but there’s always more to learn about the people we support.

The more we invest in our education and gain new perspectives, the more comfortable it becomes to talk about the uncomfortable and create an environment where everyone can feel supported and thrive.

After an intense, year-long focus on education from participating in Helios HR’s Conscious Inclusion & Belonging Committee, attending diversity leadership trainings, classes, participating in peer groups, and earning a recruiting certification in diversity and inclusion, I wanted to share some of the things I have learned on my journey.

Fortunately, Helios HR’s Conscious Inclusion & Belonging Committee has helped me do that. Over an intense year, I have participated in diversity leadership training, attended classes, joined peer groups, and earned a recruiting certification in diversity and inclusion. I’d love to share some of the things that I have learned on my journey.

5 Terms Every Inclusive Leader Should Know

Below is a list of frequently used terms and statements that were all new to me, and perhaps are new to you too. It's important to understand exactly what these terms mean and how they can impact the workforce. This is just a short list, there are many more terms, examples and situations to learn. Bear in mind they may conger up emotion and uncomfortableness — and should, as it’s all part of the learning process

1. Racial Gaslighting

Racial Gaslighting is manipulating and questioning a person of color’s sense of reality to assert power and superiority. Pam Green, an Executive and Leadership guru, provides the following example questions and phrases that can create this negative stigma:

  • “Why is it always about race?”
  • “Racism doesn’t exist anymore.”
  • “I think you are overreacting.”
  • “You just misunderstood.”
  • “It’s only a few bad apples.”
  • “It was just a joke, settle down.”
  • “If you said it nicely, more people would listen to you.”

Did reading these examples stir up any emotions for you? Have you heard them around your office? What may have seemed like an innocent statement to you may come off entirely different to someone else. It’s important that your team understands how sentiments like this can impact those around them.

2. RedLining

RedLining is a discriminatory practice that puts services (financial and otherwise) out of reach for residents of certain areas based on race or ethnicity. It can be the systematic denial of mortgages, insurance, loans, and other financial services based on location (and that area’s default history) rather than on an individual’s qualifications and creditworthiness.

Notably, the policy of redlining is felt the most by residents of minority neighborhoods. Does this show up within your compensation practices? Take the initiative to conduct a pay equity analysis and see if you have any pay or promotion discrepancies. What about your transportation policies? Give thought to where and how this may show up within your business unintentionally.

3. Code Switching

Code Switching is where the speaker will alternate between two or more languages, language styles, between formal and informal (slang) to fit in with another group of people. An example used, is Michele Obama is her best-selling book, “Becoming” she admitted “talking white” in her mostly white neighborhood to fit in.

This just is not seen in speech but also in hairstyles, food choices and clothes, including color choices. Did you know that in Virginia and many other states, there is a law in place called the Crown Act that protects individuals from being discriminated against based on their hair styles? Review and challenge your current hiring practices and standards on what someone “should” look like, or sound like, during an interview, for example. You can imagine how taxing this is to a person that must hide or adjust parts of who they are to fit in.

4. Microaggressions

According to Forbes, microaggressions are “brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioral, and environmental indignities, when intentional or unintentional that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative slights and insults to marginalized individuals and groups.”

An example of a microaggression is referring to younger workers as “young and dumb” talking about their inexperience. This is unkind and disruptive to your team’s ability to work well together. It’s also untrue, as Millennials are the most educated generation. It’s essential that we recognize microaggressions, our internal beliefs and work towards overcoming them.

Microaggressions can greatly impact your team’s mental health and create a toxic working environment, leading to high turnover if left untreated.

5. Black Lives Matter

I’m including this phrase because, from my personal experience, I understand that some people hear it as “Only Black Lives Matter”. Others, and I hope most people, understand that it means” Black Lives Matter also”. Bryan Stephenson, lawyer, founder and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative (which advocates for a fair criminal justice system), says “I think it’s just a misunderstanding, to be honest. What’s powerful about these three words is that it is a simple, basic, uncontroversial affirmation that the victimization of Black people should not be ignored.

The death and killing and unjustified abuse of Black people should not be tolerated. In a just democracy, there’s nothing controversial about it. It speaks to the way in which we have been indifferent to the victimization of Black people for a very long time, which is evident from things like no one knowing anything about the history of lynching, few people understanding the history of slavery.”

Next steps in the inclusiveness journey

Above are just a few of the most important concepts that have come up in recent months. There are many other topics, such as Defund The Police and Racial Zero-Sum Game that can seem like flashpoints of controversy, and therefore unwelcome in the workplace. However, discussing and understanding these issues is an essential step forward in the journey towards true inclusiveness.

Wherever you are with your own personal journey, I hope this helps and that I’ve shared at least one new thing. The following book recommendations are also great resources if you are interested in learning more:

  • White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo
  • How to Be an Antiracist by Dr. Ibram X. Kendi
  • The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander
  • Me and White Supremacy by Layla Saad
  • So You Want to Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo
  • Women, Race, & Class by Angela Davis

My colleague Judith Miller wrote an excellent article titled "How to Measure Your Diversity, Equality, and Inclusion Progress" with some practical advice for leaders. 

If you are looking to establish more best practices around diversity, equity and inclusion for your business reach out to my team at Helios. I’m thankful to be surrounded by DE&I experts who help me and so many others become more educated in our journey. Our team provides diversity and inclusion assessments, one-on-one coaching, diversity training, pay equity analysis reviews, and much more.