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How organizations can embrace open conversations to foster empathy and equity

Creating deeper dialogue to move us forward in our inclusion and diversity journey

Sept. 21, 2020 | By: Alicia Jessip

colleagues comfort one another by holding hands during difficult, racial and diversity discussions

From navigating a global pandemic to unleashing a modern-day civil rights movement, 2020 has been a loaded year to say the least. And it’s not over.

The conflicts across our country only continue to push us forward in the fight for racial equality and could not make more clear the need for change and healing. For some, the scale of these movements has exposed long-standing inequities we’ve been far too aware of. And for others, it’s forced a deep reckoning to face what may be uncomfortable conversations you’ve never had to hold.

Together, we have so much work to do. Embracing these conversations from both sides is urgently necessary in order to grow and nurture inclusivity instead of shying away from it. Driving inclusive and open conversations to foster empathy and equity is just one step toward a more political, educational, social and economic equality of rights for all.

Drive inclusion and workplace diversity progress by hosting conversations that matter

In my role as an inclusion and diversity manager, I’m a committed and passionate advocate for my company to drive our inclusion and diversity strategy. Whether it’s with internal employees, clients or within my own team, I’m very familiar with engaging in dialogue that is empowering and compassionate—and difficult, emotional and resentful. For me, these conversations are not new. But for many others—it’s pretty unknown territory.

Being a part of a company that prioritizes inclusion and diversity, invests in it and encourages open communication matters greatly. But it’s still different than one that holds intentional cross-cultural and intercultural conversations. That’s why it was significant when my organization, TEKsystems, began driving "conversations that matter." While the company has long been committed toward building an inclusive workforce and prioritizes building diversity and creating advocacy, this seemed like a considerable, conscious and active step in our journey toward understanding. These conversations are thoughtful, intimate discussions across the company where employees can participate and talk openly about their own experiences and perspectives on topics such as race.

I’ve helped my company prepare for these conversations by briefing leaders on how to navigate discussions they may have never had before. Some of this included responding to beliefs that these conversations do not belong in the workplace. Yet, we’re no longer setting up a society where we can compartmentalize work and home. While everyone is on this journey walking at different paces, our work life needs to have harmony. I used to believe work life needed to be integrated, but they don’t; I don’t share everything about my personal life at work, nor my working life at home. But they need to coexist and we need to recognize that our life—like when we’re witnessing injustices happening in our communities or battling the challenges with a global pandemic—will seep into our work, oftentimes in ways that are simply about empathy and connection.

I’ve also found that some employees questioned the intent behind holding such conversations—vocalizing that it felt performative or asking what came next. Having difficult conversations about equality in the workplace can lead to difficult follow-up questions from your employees. What’s the action piece? How are we mobilizing this? What is leadership doing? These feelings are valid, but the thing is, we can use these conversations and dialogues to advance—together. There are people like me who are behind the scenes, setting the foundation and helping to curate content to talk about, and there are leaders driving inclusion and diversity strategies and building high-level frameworks. But it’s everyone’s responsibility to live and breathe inclusivity. Every individual must activate inclusion and diversity—you cannot simply rely on leadership or an inclusion and diversity team to "embed" it into the organization. Ultimately, it comes down to the individual level to regularly engage in this type of dialogue to increase awareness and understanding among our teams. These conversations, although hard, create growth and change.

TEKsystems' Conversations that matter podcast | Listen Now

The best time to dive into creating equitable change is now

Whether you’re an organization looking at creating a net-new diversity strategy or building upon a foundation you already have, or you’re an individual looking to personally drive change, my advice to you is this: Do not wait.

As a team, an organization or a community—we shouldn’t wait for a big explosion of activity to curate conversations that increase awareness and understanding. Don’t get too far down a corporate strategy before engaging with one another. Take the time to peel back the business layers of what we’re here to do and achieve. It’s not merely to point out how we are different from each other, but to build a new sense of understanding and experiences together. Being able to look at one set of facts and have two different opinions—that’s diversity. Coach and lead your teams to engage in dynamic conversations that break away from bias and difference in order to honor variety and diversity. Embrace bringing these conversations into the workplace and use them as a tool to launch into active change, threaded throughout your organization.

At TEKsystems, we’re fortunate to have a long history of working toward a more diverse and inclusive culture and a foundation to work from. But it’s OK if you don’t—to start, make sure you’re collaborating to create some building blocks and putting definitions around what you want to achieve. It can be as simple as setting aside time to think about the conversations you’d like to start hosting internally: What does diversity mean to you as individuals? How do you define equity or your core values? How are your employees interpreting your mission statement as it relates to them? Breaking down these values and definitions internally will create a baseline of understanding that leadership can use to build a comprehensive diversity and inclusion strategy.

The goal is making progress on our inclusion and diversity journey, even if the destination is a lifetime away

Driving inclusion and diversity within an organization is a journey—and a long one, at that. It’s important to be honest with yourself and each other to understand that creating change is not about looking through rose-colored lenses. The journey is slow moving because so much is driven by our social world and what we see outside of the organization before it takes shape internally.

One of the biggest achievements for an organization is getting leadership to understand when there is internal inequity and overcoming a “have and have not” mindset. When leaders or employees hear “equity,” sometimes it stirs the fear that you’re taking away rights or opportunities from one person and giving them to another. For example, if we want to promote more women, does that mean we aren’t going to promote men? But that’s not what it’s about. It’s providing access to those who may not have had it before and inspiring a behavioral shift, as well as creating awareness for demographics that have historically been underrepresented, such as through employee resource groups (ERGs).

When I think about corporate inclusion and diversity, it’s a component about a legacy that I honor. I know that the work I plant today will likely bloom beyond my tenure at my company—even beyond my opportunity to actually experience it or watch it come to fruition, and I’m OK with that. Because that’s the truth about our inclusion and diversity journey. There isn’t a guidebook to thread it into organizations and systems; as Dr. Nita Mosby Tyler has said, there has never been a system in the U.S. that was built with equity in mind. Thinking about the depth and extent of the journey from that perspective is overwhelming, but it’s important to remember that it’s not feasible to boil the ocean. To make change within an organization or a community, we need to strive to bring the conversation back to an individual level. When we recognize how we each have a role to play, our journey toward understanding can only continue to move forward.

Alicia Jessip is an inclusion and diversity manager at TEKsystems. She is passionate about building a more inclusive community for underrepresented people to realize their personal and professional potential and goals. With multifaceted experience and moxie, Alicia works to identify and attract diverse talent, build platforms and operational plans that increase employee engagement, create programs that drive professional development opportunities and explore opportunities where diversity strategies align.

We’re on a journey toward understanding, inclusion and equality.

At TEKsystems, we have a culture of caring that is deeply rooted in our core value of building strong relationships.