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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Work Relationships

5 Truths That Will Change the Way You Think About Diversity and Inclusion at Work

In today’s workplace, diversity and inclusion conversations aren’t optional. “Right now, we should think about diversity as [being like] having computers in an office. You can’t run an office or business without technology. That’s how critical actual and true diversity is,” says Gleennia, a vice president at Deutsche Bank.

Despite all the progress that’s been made around diversity and inclusion (D&I) at work, there’s still a lot more work to be done. Plenty of that work has to happen on the organizational level—examining bias (unconscious or otherwise) in recruiting, being thoughtful about retention, providing equitable opportunities for advancement, and more. It’s also important for employees at all levels of a company to feel like they have a stake in these outcomes, and do their part to advance them.

Step one is for all of us to examine our own beliefs about D&I, and push back on the common arguments against it. We talked to Gleennia and two of her colleagues at Deutsche Bank about how they think about D&I at work, and took away some important truths.

1. Diversity and Inclusion Discussions Are More Than a Nice Extra

To some people, D&I work may seem like a distraction from their organization’s day-to-day or long-term objectives. But identities aren’t badges that can be taken off at the door and replaced at the end of the workday. They not only impact our approaches to the work that we do (such as problem solving and brainstorming), they can also affect our ability to be fully engaged with our colleagues and jobs.

“When you establish inclusion, you’re able to maximize your employees’ capabilities [because] you allow your employees to be themselves,” says Asgar, also a vice president. “Until then, people are going to be guarded and reserved. They won’t want to commit to the firm until they feel they are part of [its] fabric.”

On the other hand, when employees feel valued and respected, they’re more willing to go the extra mile. Gleennia has experienced that firsthand: “I have to say that Deutsche Bank is a real meritocracy in that if you are someone, regardless of your background, who is willing to roll up your sleeves and get the work done, you can succeed,” she says. “That provided me with the additional motivation to stay a little bit later, put in additional work, ask questions, raise my hand, and volunteer for projects that were initially perceived to be outside of my job description.”

2. Hiring a Diverse Group of Individuals Is Just the Beginning

“Diversity without inclusion is a failure,” Asgar asserts. He likens the experience to being invited to a party without being asked to dance—“a situation where employees just do not feel that they’re wanted, respected, or valued.”

Hiring thoughtfully is important, of course. But recruiting a bunch of “diverse” people isn’t enough if they aren’t treated like full, integral members of their teams.

It can start with making sure you are, quite literally, listening to everyone’s voices. “Having a voice means the opinion you share in the conversation is valued just as much [the opinion from] a representative of the predominant power group around that table,” Gleennia says. Pay attention to whether certain people get talked over or ignored. Whether you’re a manager or a team member, you can speak up to make sure everyone’s contributions are being given the same consideration—for example: “I really like the suggestion Susan just made; can we talk about that before moving on?”

3. A Person’s Identity Isn’t Always Obvious

Sarah, a director at Deutsche Bank, says that as a white, cisgender woman, she usually passes as straight—an assumption that comes up even when she isn’t engaging in conversations about diversity and inclusion.

“When people first meet me, they see that I’m a woman, but other components of my persona or my being don’t [show]—number one, that I’m gay,” Sarah says. “In a work situation, you’re just trying to get your work done but there’s always conversation about your life. Often, if I want people to understand who I am or know more about me, I have to come out all the time, and it can be difficult.”

Try not to make assumptions about people’s identities—for example, saying “husband” when your co-worker hasn’t mentioned the gender of their spouse, or leaping to conclusions about someone’s ethnic background.

You can also create space for your co-workers to be themselves without having to make grand announcements. One tactic Sarah offers that’s growing in popularity is allowing people to include their gender pronouns in email signatures. Transgender and nonbinary employees can easily share their pronouns—and their co-workers can make it no big deal by sharing their pronouns, too.

4. D&I Groups Are for Everyone, No Matter How You Identify

Like diverse hiring practices, creating employee resource groups (ERGs) can be a first step toward inclusion. While ERGs are important for creating community, engaging people outside of those spheres is essential to making D&I at work a shared experience.

After all, if conversations about D&I are positioned as matters for only underrepresented groups, implementing change becomes their job rather than a task for the whole organization. “You don’t need to identify with a specific culture in order to be a part of the narrative,” Asgar points out. “There’s a lot to be learned, whether it’s your culture and background or someone else’s.”

If you don’t know where to start, consider asking the leaders of a particular ERG whether members would be open to having a mixer with other groups or collaborating on a joint event. Or seek out other employer-sponsored programs where you can learn and volunteer to get involved.

For example, two years ago, Sarah started a pro bono initiative at Deutsche Bank for firm attorneys to help LGBTQ and HIV-positive immigrants and asylum seekers navigate paperwork and claims. The attorneys who lend their services don’t have to identify in either group, and they’ve had a significant impact.

5. You’re Never “Done” With Diversity and Inclusion

Diversity doesn’t have an end point, Sarah points out: “I think you can never be fully diverse, you can never be fully inclusive, because things are constantly moving and changing,” she says. “But examining your behaviors [and] having uncomfortable conversations is the way to push diversity and inclusion forward.”

She adds that cultivating an atmosphere in which underrepresented employees have support from their colleagues is key in ensuring these shifts stick.

“So often, people don’t hold prejudices themselves—but if they hear something that sounds a bit off, they feel odd speaking up,” Sarah explains. “Deutsche Bank is really working hard towards moving from ally to advocate. [That means speaking up] if you hear something that sounds awkward or you’re in a situation where you think a person might feel uncomfortable.”

Asgar agrees that the conversation is ongoing. “I don’t look at diversity and inclusion as a multi-step process, or as necessarily as an end goal,” he says. “I think ultimately how it’s sustainable is that we get to a point where people who have not been a part of the discussion—they don’t necessarily have to feel guilty for not being a part of it, but everyone should feel responsible for ensuring that it continues. When we get to that point, I think that we can just be. Finally.”