5 ways inclusive leaders show support for all employees
| September 26, 2018
Whenever a CEO or someone in a leadership position makes a public statement in support of diversity, equity and inclusion, people who agree get excited. They point that person out as a true ally, and quote them all over social media.
It’s always affirming, inspiring and uplifting for employees and consumers who feel the same way. But ultimately, the test and the business results are in the actions.
A real inclusive leader knows how to support employees that may be different than the majority. They are allies in words and deeds, and are willing to stand up to bullies even if it makes them less popular with employees they’ve known for years.
When people who are different from the majority (no matter what the difference is) there is a good possibility they may be uncomfortable, be less likely to speak up, and less likely to show their brilliance.
However, when employees feel supported by leadership, comfortable in their workplace and welcome, this all changes. They thrive and the organization is more successful and more likely to develop new products and services.
Since the majority (but not all) of CEOs are white men, there is a good chance that they have not spent a lot of time or had meaningful conversations with people who are different than them.
Here are five ways a leader can build inclusion, and be recognized as an ally.
1. Be introspective and aware that you don’t know what you don’t know.
Take time to learn about employees and their different backgrounds, whether it’s culture, race, age, religion, ability, etc. The more you know about differences, and the more willing you are to learn, connect and find commonalities, the more your employees will trust you and want to contribute to the organization.
2. Consider your comfort zone, and be willing to be uncomfortable and get to know employees that may look different than you, have a different gender identity or sexual orientation.
The problem with some leaders is that they are so intent in declaring themselves color blind, or that they “treat everyone the same,” they don’t interact with people who are different and those people feel invisible and left out.
This can result in a loss of great ideas, or employee apathy. It’s obvious to them you don’t care or that you think they have little to contribute.
One of the leaders I was coaching in a hospitality organization was told that she was aloof and rarely interacted with Filipino employees. She would be seen joking and engaging in casual conversations with other employees.
When I questioned her, she said that she was uncomfortable with accents and was afraid of not being able to understand what they were saying. She felt it was rude to ask people to repeat themselves. She was also afraid that her casual demeanor would offend them.
Instead, she avoided those employees, who in turn thought she was being racist towards them. After working with her and some of the Filipino employees, the situation changed. Two of the employees took on the responsibility of being her “culture coach.” The environment was better for everyone.
3. Learn common issues that different groups have in the workplace, like being the targets of bias, jokes or harassment.
Once you know what the potential issues are, you can look out for them. Understand that although in the past you may have been able to gloss over certain comments, those comments have an impact on people’s ability to do their best work. It’s hard to be creative if you are the target of racist, homophobic, sexist and other offensive remarks and behaviors.
4. After step three, prepare strategies for speaking up for your employees and calling out those offenders that contribute to making the workplace uncomfortable for some people.
One of my clients confidentially admitted to me that he had little experience with LGBT people and didn’t know what to say when someone made homophobic jokes. He wasn’t anti-LGBT, but just didn’t know how to be inclusive and he really wanted to learn.
We took him out to lunch with the two leaders of the LGBT ERG and they very patiently answered his questions and shared their issues. This year he was designated an official LGBT ally.
5. Do more than celebrate Black History Month or attend diversity potlucks. Let people know (and be loud) that you will listen, speak up in support, and that you will continue to educate yourself and everyone else in the workplace.
Finally, when it comes to education, remember that you were probably not always the “perfect diversity and inclusion leader,” and that you had to learn. Do not tolerate bullies, hate speech or harassment but make a distinction between egregious behavior and unintentional offenses or comments that stem from ignorance.
Don’t let those lesser offenses continue because left unchecked they can become major if ignorance is allowed to fester.
Ultimately, it’s up to you as a leader to show your support, your willingness to learn and be an action ally that promotes change, and not a person who knows how to just “say” the right thing.
If you to employ these five practices, you’ll create a great workplace where innovation thrives, people take creative risks and everyone will be encouraged to shine. Your organization will be able to welcome new people; you’ll strengthen your brand as a leader and as a best place to work for everyone.
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