Suzanne Clark of Four Corners Group was recently invited to speak at the University of Toronto Professional Graduate Student Caucus’ Panel Discussion on Inequalities in the Workplace and weighs in on systemic inequalities and the four steps leaders can take to influence positive change.
Q: Despite good intentions, discussing inequalities and discriminatory behaviour in the workplace can trigger resistance and defensiveness. What strategy should leaders use to address inequality and inequity effectively?
I fundamentally believe that most people are not intentionally discriminatory toward others. Yet, that does not mean that we are not! As human beings, our brains seek to expeditiously make sense of the world around us and, without conscious intention, we regularly and routinely discriminate and stereotype. Further, the structures that exist within our society (and companies even) often work to maintain inequity rather than improve it. The question we need to ask ourselves is: Are we aware? Do we recognize where unconscious bias is at play? Do we recognize where inequalities exist, and which individuals/groups are more likely to be discriminated against within the established or maintained structures around us? And why?
Leaders within organizations are in a unique position to be able to model the way and set the tone for how a company acknowledges and addresses inequalities. Leaders need to ask about inclusion, and not just from a lens of including individuals within the company. Leaders should be asking: Who is not included or who is under-represented in your workplace? Who is already here that we are not hearing from? Who is not given equal voice? What could contribute to this exclusion? What potential barriers can we identify? What can we do differently to ensure inclusion?
As the Roman Emperor, Marcus Aurelius, wrote in Meditations 9.5: “Often, injustice lies in what you aren’t doing, not only in what you are doing.”
Become proactive. Seek to uncover your organization’s blind spots when it comes to inclusion.
Q: Individual experiences may vary; inequalities and discrimination may not always be in explicit forms. How do we detect more subtle forms of discrimination and inequalities like micro-aggressions in the workplace?
To be able to detect something, you must understand what it looks like, sounds like, or how it presents, even in the most subtle forms. For most of us, this requires a commitment to learning and desire to self-educate. Fortunately, there are ample resources that one can access / read / watch / listen to, to begin along this journey. Deep understanding also requires building respectful, open relationships with others, desiring to learn, improve and do better—part of this journey necessarily includes setting defensiveness aside and being truly open to critique. Here again, leaders can model a culture of inquiry, openness and commitment to continuous learning and doing better. Once detected, acknowledging what inequalities and forms of discrimination exist and need to be addressed is one thing. From there, as a leader, taking ownership, championing change and committing to measuring and reporting on this work are essential steps.
Q: Within workplaces, what can leaders to do ensure that our inclusion efforts make a difference over the long term?
If we recognize or see people treating others unfairly, we may think that by changing the behaviour, the problem is addressed. However, one needs to look below the surface to see what is really going on. If you think of an iceberg, behaviours that we can observe are only the fraction of ice visible above the surface. In fact, it is the barriers below the surface that reinforce the behaviours. These are the systemic barriers, the powerful unexamined ideas (stereotypes and assumptions) as well as policies, practices and procedures that need to be examined and addressed to create lasting change. This work begins with detailed and committed awareness-seeking, followed by measurement, tracking, and reporting back (publicly) on progress. Intention alone won’t get you there. Like the adage goes, what gets measured gets done!
Q: For leaders undertaking this important work of making their organizations more inclusive, what is one thing that they could do today to advance inclusion?
One of the most important things is to intentionally seek out individuals with different experiences, viewpoints, and approaches from our own. We should be seeking this out directly, while also minimizing practices (especially in hiring, recruitment, and screening) that work against this aim. Examine and question your organization’s common and established practices—are they enhancing inclusion and diversity in your organization? Who have these practices historically benefited and what purpose do they currently serve? What alternatives exist that might be more equitable for those from the non-dominant group?
Language also plays an important role in shaping how we think about what we are seeking. For example, I encourage leaders that want to advance diversity within their organization to reframe the common recruitment goal of looking for “culture fit” to one of looking for “culture add”, which encourages openness to diversity rather than alignment with what presently exists. Carefully examining the “standard ways” in your organization (including how they are experienced by individuals from the non-dominant group) is a great first step and one that every leader who is serious about advancing inclusion needs to take.
Special recognition to Suzanne Clark, Partner at Four Corners Group, who is committed to sustained action in support of Diversity & Inclusion in the workplace.