Think you have the measure of diversity and inclusion? Step back and take a broader view.
People have the capacity to amaze – to floor you with their courage, resilience and humility.
For me, it’s the single most enthralling part of being a writer and internal communications professional.
And when those stories have previously gone untold because people are too modest and unassuming or they’ve previously felt the need to suppress them, well, the impact of stories like that is just profound.
You may have guessed that I’m talking about stories of a particular type – stories about diversity and inclusion. I even have a particular story in mind – a very personal story that someone was prepared to share with me. Me, a complete stranger.
I won’t share the whole of it – it’s his to tell. But I will share the part that for me kicked the door wide open on what I believe most people think about when they hear the words ‘diversity and inclusion’.
Check your assumptions
I don’t mean the part we can all agree on, the part that says something like ‘making work a place where people feel they can be their true, authentic selves and be valued for the unique perspectives they bring to their role and collaborations.’ I mean the assumption that many make about diversity and inclusion, that it’s principally about levelling the playing field for people whose gender, race, sexuality, disability or age, for example, can be used against them.
Back to the story. Having come out to friends and family a year before, a colleague at a large UK business decided it was finally time to tell people at work. That’s after a year of accepting his sexuality, but not feeling he could talk about it. A year of exposure to what he describes as a lad culture of casual homophobia where he couldn’t be his true, authentic self. So – deep breath – he began speaking one on one to colleagues he trusted. He felt awkward and nervous, but he needn’t have worried since everyone showed great empathy and support.
The big cover up
The big surprise, however, was that in almost every case, colleagues rewarded his honesty by volunteering their own stories. Big, sensitive issues that they’d felt the need to cover up, either for fear of being judged or a misplaced sense of shame. As a result, many had brought an edited version of themselves to work, which was potentially limiting their impact and potential, and their employee experience.
…said they feel they have to suppress aspects of their personal life at work for fear of being judged. According to the research, 45% of straight, white men also hide parts of who they are too. Follow this to its logical conclusion and the majority of people are fighting battles of which we know next to nothing. Of course, they’re under no obligation to share those, but we should at the very least ensure that people can show up to work as themselves. How? By giving people our time, by listening, by being open-minded and by showing empathy and kindness.
As for the colleague I mentioned, his big take away was that by being authentic and vulnerable, he had given others permission to do likewise. He found that reciprocal level of trust meant that people – him included – were more motivated to collaborate and to do their best for others. Suddenly, it’s a conversation not just about diversity and inclusion, but also productivity and results.
The experience inspired him to set up a network where people can role-model being their true selves at work. By definition it’s inclusive, so while aimed at colleagues who identify as LGBTQ+, many of its members don’t. The point is to encourage people to celebrate their differences – whatever they are – and place value on the power of diversity to create a great place to work and actively support business success.
The fact is that conformity has never offered any competitive advantage for business. Nor has it ever been inspirational for employees. So, let’s celebrate difference instead.