People often ask what I believe would help employees of color thrive at work. Many companies have declared a commitment to diversity and inclusion — to creating a level playing field where all employees have the opportunity to excel and be their authentic selves. I usually share ideas for how to raise leadership’s collective consciousness to combat bias or emphasize the importance of questioning traditional processes built on dated values and norms.
Most longstanding talent strategies were formed by and for the majority, which means they inherently cater to a specific way of leading — namely, the white male way. Working to advance women and people of color in corporate America is, in a sense, like swimming upstream.
Systemic retooling aside, optimizing the potential of employees of color uses the same fundamental enablers required by everyone else. I wrote a blog several months ago called, "'What do black people want?' I'll tell you." Several commenters questioned the premise, claiming the wants listed were — in their words — "universal." They were right, of course. Similarly, the needs highlighted below are universally desired, but not uniformly provided. Every human being will recognize them as meaningful — obvious, even. But it matters that we acknowledge how many are still waiting for the simple benefits others find so commonplace.
Consider, for a moment, that you have the power to make three basic needs available to more people. What would you do differently?
1. Multiculturals at work need to feel connected. We move up and through organizations thanks to our skills and experiences, but also because of our networks. Employees of color need connections to leaders beyond their work teams and immediate spheres of influence. They need mentors — both peer and senior — from diverse disciplines who can provide the broader business context and visibility to other leaders who may open doors for them down the road. One of the most useful gifts you can offer a person of color at work is an introduction. The more connected we are, the more pathways we create for learning and development. Just like everyone else, right? Except people of color are sometimes isolated at work, because they’re unclear about how to appropriately penetrate existing relationship circles.
2. Multiculturals at work need to be reflected. Over the years, I’ve heard white leaders admit they don’t notice when internal communications or advertising campaigns fail to overtly reflect people of color. Nothing is missing for them. Truth be told, they see themselves reflected everywhere, all the time. When a printed or televised representation of a company lacks cultural diversity, those left out feel invisible. What’s more, they quietly wonder whether they really have a place in the company at all — as an employee or a consumer. Even more critical is the need to see themselves reflected in leadership. I visited a company where a white woman told me she attended a town hall with a leader panel of five white males, all over 50 years old. She hardly heard a word they said. All she thought about was the overwhelming visual cue, which appeared as a sign of her limited advancement potential.
3. Multiculturals at work need to feel respected. Cultural difference is a hotbed for assumptions. We assume when someone behaves a certain way, they’re doing it for the same reasons we would, but that’s hardly ever true. When colleagues behave in ways you can’t explain, seek first to understand. What’s motivating their behavior? Is there a communication gap? A difference in preference or style? Are beliefs or values at play? Is something deeper going on? I know a young man who was overwhelmed at work. Others perceived him as negative and disengaged, because he seemed withdrawn. There’s a big difference between feeling overwhelmed and disengaged, and without intervention, that assumption could have taken root and turned disastrous. Assume and expect the best from people and always treat them with respect.
Everyone can help turn diversity into inclusion by helping people connect, consciously reflecting diversity and assuming the best in others. It’s not rocket science, but it does require awareness and intention.
Employees of color and advocates, what would you add to this list?