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Not Just Checking Boxes: How To Authentically Build a Culture of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion in Our Workplaces

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In Canada and the U.S, February is Black History Month. While it's a time for celebrations, it's also an opportunity for many of us to ask challenging questions and to keep asking them throughout the other 11 months of the year. We know that the past opens doors to the future and yes, we have traveled far, but there is still a long way to go to build the kind of society where no one is left behind. And that's also true for workplaces too.

In the spirit of Black History Month, we wanted to revisit a panel discussion we held on diversity, equity and inclusion in the workplace, "How Diversity Creates High-Performance Teams," to remind us that building stronger workplace communities that work for everyone is a discussion we need to keep having in the office, in the boardroom, on virtual meetups and out in the open. As our panelists revealed, diversity is not just a box to check. It takes persistent and continuous feedback and dialogue to incorporate effective diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives into the workplace that also tackle the systemic racism and biases that exist at the individual, interpersonal and organizational levels.

In this blog, we will look at five key takeaways from the panel on how to incorporate diversity, equity and inclusion into the workplace and what finance and operations professionals, leaders and companies can do to weave them into the DNA of their organizations. The discussion was moderated by Shayenda Suyeshkumar, Vena's Senior Operations Manager and Co-founder and Co-chair of Vena's Network for Women. Shayenda spoke to Vena's Chief Customer Officer, Debbie Lillitos, Camille Dundas, Co-Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Canada's largest Black online magazine and Chúk Odenigbo, an intersectional environmentalist and one of the founding directors of Future Ancestors Services Inc.

1. Realize That Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Are More Than Just Office Buzzwords

In many industries, workplaces are more diverse than ever, but that doesn't mean everybody feels seen heard or that they belong. Diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) goes much deeper than a company's policy or headcount. As Camille said, "If you have the diversity part without inclusion and belonging, you'll find yourself hiring people as fast as they're leaving."

There is a purpose attached to building inclusive work environments. That purpose includes:

  • Gaining trust and commitment from their employees. For Camille, trust is at the core of true inclusion. She shared this quote from British-American author and inspirational speaker Simon Sinek that echoes her statement, "A team is not a group of people who work together. A team is a group of people who trust each other."
  • Making sure that everyone--no matter who they are or what they do within a company--feels safe to reveal who they are and to feel a sense of belonging in their work environment. For Debbie, this means giving employees equal opportunities to share their unique needs, perspectives and potentials and to ensure that they will be heard, honored and validated.
  • Not being reactive, as in identifying a gap in representation and simply filling it. For Chúk, there's much more to DEI that involves taking steps in advance of an issue, such as racism, so that the issue never rises in the first place.

The panelists went further to identify even deeper layers to diversity, equity and inclusion that involve our next key takeaway, intersectionality and why it matters to DEI.

2. Identify That Intersectionality Is Important To Diversity, Equity and Inclusion

Shayenda said that there are parts of our identity that bind us together, but that there are also parts of our identity that separate us from others. That's the core of intersectionality. As Chúk explained, "Intersectionality recognizes that identity is complex and that we rarely fit into one box." He emphasized the importance of bringing an intersectional lens to DEI in order for organizations to understand and acknowledge that everyone has their unique experiences when it comes to discrimination and oppression. In order to do this, companies must consider:

  • Everything and anything that can possibly make an individual feel excluded in order to avoid unconscious bias in the workplace.
  • Not looking at race or gender, for instance, as catchall categories. An inclusive work environment is one that would acknowledge all of the diversities that exist among a particular race or gender.
  • Looking at all the other dimensions of the way that somebody experiences life.

Camille stopped attending events at work that promised to put women first because she felt completely erased. These events tended to focus on women who were in the majority. "It's easy and acceptable for everyone to say that they support women and equal pay, but when I brought up that there were other ways that I was oppressed in the workplace, not because I'm a woman, but because I'm a Black woman, all I got was crickets," she said.

3. Put Diversity, Equity and Inclusion at the Forefront of Planning and Operations

Shayenda revealed that studies show companies with more diverse leadership teams have reported 45% higher innovation revenue. And with more innovation also comes a competitive advantage and the ability to easily attract top talent. But how do companies get there?

Here's what leaders can do to create a strong corporate culture that puts diversity, equity and inclusion at the forefront of planning and operations:

  • Walk the talk. According to Debbie, it starts with leadership. Are they doing what they said they would do or are they just making empty promises?
  • Work it into workforce planning. Look closely at talent and acquisition. Building a diverse team means finding people who have diverse opinions and solutions. How are companies assessing gaps and finding people who can bring a fresh perspective?
  • Be conscious of the language they are using in job descriptions and within the organization.
  • Create a sense of safety and demonstrate vulnerability.
  • Measure vulnerability and give people multiple channels to provide feedback.
  • Question everything. For Camille, this comes down to having uncomfortable conversations and creating safe spaces in which discussions need to take place and encourage engagement.
  • Establish norms in a company for what's accepted and not accepted. Once they have established this set of acceptable behaviors at the company and identified specific things that will not be tolerated, it will be easier for people to call out inappropriate behavior.
  • Set values and ensure collective enforcement by encouraging employees to be upstanders, not bystanders. For Debbie, this means interrupting inappropriate behavior at the time when it's happening even if it makes others feel uncomfortable because other people will model that behavior.
  • Have a recourse for when inappropriate behavior keeps happening.

And it doesn't stop there. As Chúk brought up, it's important for companies to look at the retention rate, to talk to people who are leaving and to make sure new measures are put in place to address issues that keep happening in the workplace. It's all about making sure a company takes measures to consistently improve DEI.

4. Be Aware That Workforce Data and Analytics Can Be a Catalyst and a Caveat for DEI

Companies collect, analyze and use data to make data-driven decisions, but how can they use workforce data and analytics to fuel a company's DEI? And how is that measured, reported and used to create DEI strategies?

Camille said, "Everyone thinks we need data and we do need data, but everyone thinks that they're ready for data and not every company is ready for data. Do your employees trust that you are going to do something with this data? If filling out the form will make an impact and result in a change, they'll be happy to share that data with you."

Here's how companies can use workforce data and analytics as a catalyst for DEI:

  • Debbie suggested that companies gather as much data as they can in a multiple of ways, different forms and channels.
  • Taking a look at what outcomes it's driving and what is happening in the business and making informed decisions, but also iterating along the way.
  • Companies should also recognize that they may be making the wrong decisions based on data, so they have to be careful with it as well.

But as Chúk pointed out, there is also a caveat for using data collection because it can be as he described it, a "double-edged sword." Data can be dangerous without setting the right intentions for it. Companies have to be clear about why they are collecting that data and what they plan to do with it. If they look at numbers and determine that something is not worth continuing based on low numbers, it can be used to erase people's existence or representation. Instead, they should be interpreting data and moving towards solutions based on that data.

5. Hold Everyone Accountable To Company Values

Companies can be agents of societal change, but what happens when employees are faced with work cultures that are not living by the standards that they've set?

To address this, Camille emphasized the importance and necessity for a symbiotic relationship to exist at work. "Employers are providing something to their employees, but employees are also providing something to the employer. Employers can hold their employees accountable even outside of the workplace if they say something inappropriate and even risk being fired." But as she was quick to point, there's no reverse. If an employer is doing something inappropriate, how can they be held accountable?

Here's some advice the panelists offered:

  • Camille encourages everyone to speak up, even when they're afraid or have something to lose. It's the reason why a lot of people quit when really, employees should feel empowered to hold their companies accountable to the values they set up.
  • If a company hasn't set up values, press them to create them and to live by them.
  • When they make decisions that don't resonate with those values, raise a red flag.
  • Debbie suggested using your everyday privilege to help and protect others. When you witness discrimination, call it out.
  • When a company isn't living by the standards they set, Chúk said to know your worth and speak up. If they don't listen, he suggested it might be time to look elsewhere. "You don't want them to think that what they are doing is acceptable," he said.

Oftentimes, when people speak up, they're labeled as troublemakers. But Camille sees these people as the ones who actually care the most. They're invested in the company, so employers should value their feedback. "It's a trade-off. We're telling you to bring your whole self to work and we want you to be involved, then this is what you get. You can't have one without the other," she said.

(Check out 
The Ultimate Guide to Workforce Planning to help you plan your team now and for the future.)

Diversity, Equity and Inclusion For Business Growth and Success

The insights our panelists provided and the experiences they shared highlight the value of DEI to a company's growth and success. Bringing diverse people together is all about innovating and collaborating effectively to bring the best products and services to market. For companies to truly succeed in today's global market, it's clear that weaving diversity, equity and inclusion into their workplace programs and perspectives is not only a step in the right direction, it's a big step up in creating equal opportunities for everyone.

Get the full insights on how to start incorporating DEI into your workplace. Click here to watch "How Diversity Creates High-Performance Teams" now.


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