How to improve diversity at work without getting fired
Racial issues have boiled over in the past few months and revealed systemic bias. Energy for change is coming from individual people who are passionate, angry, and ready to fight for change.
Perhaps you attended protests and rallies to demand change. That change is needed and important. You can also inspire change within your workplace, but it requires a different energy and approach if you want to keep your job.
In my career, I’ve run Diversity and Inclusion (D&I) programs for big companies and wrote an article about how an organization can create a D&I strategy.
This article explores how you, as an employee, can drive diversity and inclusion within your company and protect your job at the same time.
Driving change at work requires a special approach. Workplace rules and norms don’t go away just because you are advocating for something important.
Your right to free speech is not protected in the workplace the same way it is with the government.
If you push too hard, you’ll find yourself out of a job. You can’t help anyone if you are on the unemployment line.
We live in a time that calls for social justice warriors – people who are willing to step up and take a strong stance against racism, sexism, and other forms of discrimination.
You might be one of the social justice warriors who is fighting for equality and positive change. Your efforts are laudable, but you should think twice before approaching diversity and inclusion in your organization from a warrior stance.
You must balance your need for a job with your passion. If you derail normal business activity, you could find yourself out of a job. In that case, you would lose your ability to improve the organization and you might not be able to pay rent.
Instead of being adversarial, approach diversity and inclusion change as an advocate. Communicate, educate and advocate for equality while still respecting the workplace.
Balance your passion with your professionalism. Be a warrior with outside activities and be an advocate at work.
Remember your work
In addition to staying professional, keep focus on doing a great job every day. Monitor your advocacy to make sure that it does not detract from your work performance.
Don’t forget the reason you get paid.
In one organization, I watch a young employee forget this lesson. She started an employee resource group geared at young professionals and the group became her main focus. She spent countless work hours focused on planning activities and scheduled them during the workday.
Her performance declined and the activities pulled other employees away from time-sensitive projects. She refused to change her approach, and it finally required intervention from HR and her senior leaders to get her back on track. In the process, she received negative performance reviews and lost credibility.
Strong performers create great career paths for themselves and also gain credibility and influence needed to advocate for change.
Know the culture
Every organization is different. As you plan to advocate for inclusion, consider your organization’s culture.
I’ve worked in large, bureaucratic organizations that moved slowly and required D&I efforts to occur in synch with company-wide programs.
I’ve also worked in small start-up companies that moved fast and embraced new diversity and inclusion ideas from anyone willing to take the initiative.
Some organizations already support D&I while others are just starting. Every organization is at a different point in the journey.
Evaluate your organization and tailor your approach accordingly.
Frame your scope
As you start your advocacy, think about the area of inclusion you want to tackle. Maybe your primary focus is bringing Black Lives Matters into your workplace.
Or maybe you want to address all forms of diversity such as equality based on race, gender, religion, disability, thought, personality, and more.
Understanding your scope helps define the actions you can take.
Recognize the realities
Just as you need to seek balance and remember your work, the organization itself must stay focused on getting work done.
D&I efforts support the primary business mission of the organization. They make the workplace better and employees more effective. But ultimately, the organization delivers a product or service to customers and that comes first.
The business and D&I efforts need to exist together. Sometimes this means that inclusion efforts go slowly, must adapt to business needs, or must fit within business cycles.
Example of reality slowing inclusion
One company committed to a goal of increasing the number of women in leadership roles. In a magical world, we could flip a switch and replace half of the men with women. The real world is not that simple.
It’s not reasonable for firemen who are performing well in order to replace them with women. Besides the fact that that would harm the business and violate gender discrimination laws, that is not an inclusive approach.
Instead, the approach became a long-term one to increase the number of women leaders over time. For example, the recruiters focused on increasing the pool of female candidates for open roles, and senior leaders added a diversity review during succession planning.
These changes led to increased diversity, but it took months and years instead of immediate improvement.
Potential actions to drive inclusion
Once you’ve thought through those considerations, it’s time to take action.
Find a senior ally
It always helps to have an ally who is a senior leader. Ask around to find someone who might share your passion.
Approach the leader and see if he or she will participate in your work or at least provide some support. It might take a few tries to find the right person – and the right person is not always the obvious one.
I worked with one female black leader who intentionally avoided doing D&I work, because she did not want to be the poster child for it. She preferred to focus on her own career growth and passively act as a role model.
In another case, a straight white man volunteered to sponsor the GLBTQ employee resource group, because he believed in the mission.
Connect to D&I team
Find out who in your organization holds formal responsibility for Diversity and Inclusion and connect to that person or group.
In small organizations, there might not be anyone responsible for it or it might be a low priority for an over-tasked HR person. Most medium to large companies will have someone working on D&I.
Determine if you can plug in to work that they are already doing or if you can extend their efforts. They might even provide funding for your ideas.
Connecting with the D&I professionals will also help you find balance and stay within reasonable guide rails for your organization.
Start an Employee Resource Group
One common method for individuals to drive inclusion is through employee resource groups (ERGs).
These groups form around a common characteristic – like gender, GLBTQ, racial groups, career stage, disability, working parents – to provide support, networking, and education.
Every company handles ERGs differently. They can be formal/ informal, funded/ not funded, company-sponsored/ part of a national group, large/ small.
With guidance from your D&I professionals, you can set up some type of ERG to raise visibility for your passion.
As you learn more about your passion and D&I, share links to articles and resources. Join company-sponsored Slack channels or other discussion groups to find like-minded employees.
Start a conversation. Keep the topic alive and visible.
This outreach also helps associate you with the mission, so others can reach out with questions and interests.
Practice inclusion every day
If you want to expand D&I within your organization, you should always model the behavior. Find ways to build inclusion into your daily interactions and work.
In an earlier article, I shared some ideas for being more inclusive such as stopping inappropriate jokes, inviting different opinions, and watching language.
You have the power to improve diversity and inclusion within your company. Be thoughtful and purposeful in your approach, so you can have an impact and protect your job.
Ann Howell, PhD
- Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
- Twitter: @drannhowell