The public murders of Black and brown individuals have added fuel to the previously meager but growing flame that was corporate diversity, equity and inclusion. More and more difficult conversations are being had in the workplace, and as an ally to POC, a woman, a member of the LGBTQ community — and just generally a person who wants my diverse colleagues to feel accepted and safe — I am elated at the progress that’s being made right now, though I hate the reason why it’s happening. I have noticed an unfortunate trend surrounding these conversations though: they are often so heavily censored that dialogue is inhibited and participants are forced to walk away without action steps to move forward.
In recent weeks, I’ve sat in on webinars that claim to discuss complex topics like systemic racism “in-depth” or “candidly” and found that the participants were so calculated in their answers they almost sounded scripted (some probably were) and it felt like we spent an hour walking around the issue at hand. I get it — in the communications field, it’s literally our jobs to say the right thing. Unfortunately, in a corporate setting, the “right” way to say something by corporate standards often cloaks the issue in jargon or politics. If we really want our companies, and our industry as a whole, to be more inclusive, we have to be willing to get real.
Aside: I’m not talking about code-switching, which is a whole other problem in and of itself. I’m talking about: If you’re planning to have a candid conversation on race in the workplace but you can’t say “Black people” or “people of color” without stumbling, then you’ve got a problem.
To move forward, we all have to be honest about what our companies have done wrong in the past and put forth an action plan on what we’re going to do to both correct that error (or series of major missteps) and ensure the safety and well-being of all team members moving forward. From my own experience (I do not claim to be an expert), progress pertaining to diversity, equity and inclusion can be boiled down to three things:
Education, as I mentioned, is often a critical first step forward — so don’t throw away your webinar idea yet! For many people, the issue at hand might be readily apparent, but others may be totally clueless to its existence. As an example, many of my friends are LGBTQ and I’ve been in spaces where sharing pronouns is both expected and encouraged for several years. However, in office settings largely populated by cisgender folks, the importance of sharing pronouns is not always known or understood. For this reason (and many others), it’s great to host or attend trainings on gender identity and share resources on this topic to educate colleagues. This helps ensure that everyone has, at the very least, the same baseline understanding of gender and of pronoun usage.
Of course, you can try to segue from education into dialogue and action all in one session. For example, transitioning from explaining, “What are pronouns?” to opening up the floor to discussing “Are your pronouns important to your identity? If so, why?” and then, “How can we ensure people of different gender identities feel safe and validated in our space?” However, for most complex topics, you’re probably going to want to split that up into at least two separate sessions. People who are just learning about the topic might be overwhelmed by the thought of discussing it openly and at-length. Conversely, people who are already knowledgeable on the topic are likely to be bored and/or frustrated sitting through a basic training session.
When you’re encouraging people to sign up for these sessions, you should be clear about what attendees can expect from each. The logistical set-up of the meeting or event is also important. Can you really call your webinar a “dialogue” if the panelists came to the Zoom call with answers already prepared to a list of questions designed by a host organization — not by the attendees? Is it actually a “conversation,” if you’re asking people to submit questions via the Q&A box and then picking and choosing which ones you actually answer? Personally, I would say “no” to the above.
I am not saying webinars and other trainings of this educational nature shouldn’t exist. On the contrary, we desperately need folks who are willing to sit and break these topics — such as systemic racism — down to their basics and educate participants. We just have to understand that this approach is not enough to fix the problems we are facing right now. (To my comms people specifically, we need to be careful to not promote meetings/webinars/events in a way that promises more than what we will be delivered.)
Education and dialogue surrounding these issues is necessary and should be encouraged, but it’s important that we pair both of those elements with action. If your attendees sit and listen to you talk for an hour and walk away still asking themselves, “Okay, but what can I do about it?” Then you probably need to add a few more slides to your PowerPoint or get another meeting on the books. It’s no longer enough to sit there and say there is a problem in your office and that you want something to change – you have to make things change. Otherwise, you’re just another group of people talking in circles, and we’ve got enough of those in high-power positions as it is.