Diversity and inclusion have long been buzzwords that companies parade—often for marketing purposes. But in the past few years, more and more job seekers and employees, particularly millennials and Gen Z, are vetting companies by their diversity and inclusion track record in addition to factors like salary and career opportunities. According to a 2020 survey conducted by the National Association of College and Employers (NACE), for instance, 79% of graduates considered a diverse workforce to be “very important.” And these workers expect companies to do more than just pay lip service to creating a diverse, equitable, and inclusive environment.
Corporations still have a long way to go to meet these expectations. A 2020 McKinsey report found that representation of ethnic minorities and women in executive teams across the U.S. and the U.K. sat at just 13% and 20% respectively in 2019. A survey by human resources consulting firm Mercer found that while white workers make up 64% of entry-level workers, they make up 85% at the executive level, illustrating the barriers that BIPOC workers face when it comes to advancement. Black women, for example, are less likely to get support and encouragement from their managers or to have a chance to interact with senior leaders, according to a Lean In report, while also experiencing a wide range of microaggressions.
The statistics, research, and stories can seem discouraging if you’re an early career professional who’s just entering the workforce—particularly if you’re a BIPOC employee. In many cases, the reality is you’ll be joining organizations that have a lot of work left to do when it comes to DEI.
Ultimately, widespread change can only happen when there is a policy and cultural shift at an organizational level, which has to come from those at the top. However, there are ways you can advocate for diversity, equity, and inclusion in the early years of your career. And particularly as the war for talent in a post-pandemic workforce continues, you may find yourself in a powerful position to demand more from the companies you work for and take action that has the potential to lead to long-lasting changes. Here are five ways you can start to do just that.
1. Take on Work That You Want (and Have the Capacity) to Do
Diversity and inclusion touches on many aspects of the workplace—from culture to hiring to communication. As an early career employee, it can be daunting to figure out where to start if you want to make an impact.
That’s why it’s important to take stock of where the company is at when it comes to diversity and inclusion, says Doris Quintanilla, executive director and cofounder of The Melanin Collective, an organization that provides diversity and inclusion consulting services. Then, identify areas that need improvement and ways that you might be able to help as an early career employee (see some examples below). From there, you should decide if it’s something you want (or have the capacity) to take on. This is especially important for BIPOC employees, who might feel like they have no choice but to engage in this work if they don’t see themselves reflected in their bosses and coworkers. “But unless your job is chief of diversity, then it’s not really your job. It’s an extra and should be treated as such,” says Quintanilla.
If you do want and have the capacity to take on the work, the next step is to calculate how much time it’s going to take and how you’ll juggle those with your job responsibilities. If you need to put in extra hours, consider whether or not you’ll be compensated for that. While most companies still view diversity and inclusion work as an “extra,” a growing number are acknowledging that it’s work that involves additional labor and are treating it as such, says Dr. Akilah Cadet, executive coach and CEO and founder of Change Cadet, a consulting firm that offers services such as data assessments, planning, and advising in support of diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging in the workplace.
Once you start doing the work, Quintanilla suggests keeping a record of the initiatives and responsibilities you’ve taken on—so you can refer to it later during your annual review or during conversations around promotions and pay raises. However, Cadet warns that you should be careful about taking on too much responsibility too soon. “That happens a lot with first-time employees,” she says. She especially cautions BIPOC employees from joining too many committees or doing all of the work in employee resource groups, because you don’t want to create an expectation that “can fall into tokenism.”
2. Find Ways to Be Involved in the Hiring Process
Companies that want to diversify their workforce often have to change their recruitment practices and find ways to widen their talent pool. And there are many ways that employees at any level can help with that, even if you’re not officially part of the hiring process. For example, if you have a diverse network of friends, Cadet says, letting those friends know about open positions in your workplace can go a long way. If you know a candidate who might be perfect for that open position, you can also recommend them to the hiring manager or at least make sure that the hiring manager sees their application.
You can also “look at the policies and practices for how people are recruited and ask questions,” Cadet says. For instance, if your company isn’t actively recruiting from HBCUs (historically Black colleges and universities), ask them why and suggest that they start doing so.
Writing company reviews and sharing personal stories on public websites can also help attract a broader spectrum of candidates. For starters, if you’re a person of color and you’re describing your experience as a POC at the company, “People can read that,” Quintanilla says. “That’s what’s going to get more folks to come in.”
3. Speak Up When You See Microaggressions, But Do It Strategically
When a company or team discriminates against marginalized employees, it can manifest in big ways—like overlooking them for a promotion. But it also happens in day-to-day interactions and social conversations—for example, when colleagues shut down and question their ideas in meetings. It’s important to speak up when those things happen, Cadet says, but how you do it and what you say should depend on the situation that you’re witnessing or experiencing.
Take the example of a BIPOC employee who constantly has their ideas shut down or questioned in meetings. If it’s happening to you, Cadet recommends sending an email or pulling the offender(s) aside privately after the meeting and saying something along the lines of, “I know this might not have been your intent, but I wanted to bring this to your attention because when you do x, I feel this way.”
If you’re an observer who doesn’t want to be a complicit bystander, you might similarly approach someone privately after the fact. Or if you witness a microaggression in a smaller group or one-on-one setting, and you have a comfortable relationship with the person, it’s best to call it out in the moment. Saying something like, “That’s a microaggression, let’s not use that,” or, “That’s not accurate,” lets the person know that what they’re saying is inappropriate. Then you can either explain in the moment how the language is hurtful or tell the person, “I’m happy to explain why at a later time.”
4. Initiate Conversations Around Current Events
Both Cadet and Quintanilla say that one of the most important and valuable things that an early career employee can do to improve diversity and inclusion in a company is to be willing to ask hard questions and engage in difficult conversations.
Use the news as a jumping-off point to initiate conversations around how current events might impact employees in the office, Cadet says. During one-on-one meetings with your supervisor, you might say something like, “This xyz thing that is happening in the news is affecting me. Can we talk more about this as a company?” In a group meeting setting, it might be saying something like, “This x thing in the news is upsetting. I wonder how everyone is feeling about it?”
Early career employees might feel like they’re not in the position to make policy changes, but Cadet and Quintanilla say that bringing up these types of discussions is actually the first step. After all, policy changes don’t happen instantaneously. Cadet urges entry-level employees to use their “newness” to their advantage. Many companies are actively engaging in anti-racism efforts, she says, and having early career employees ask questions around what they’re doing in response to current events is one way they can hold the company accountable.
5. Enforce Your Boundaries
Improving diversity and inclusion is not an overnight task. It’s an ongoing process that requires a significant amount of emotional energy. There might be weeks that just feel too heavy, and you’re not in the headspace to engage in this kind of work. It’s vital that you can say no in those circumstances, Quintanilla says, which is easier to do “when you have set expectations and boundaries,” both with yourself and also the people at work.
Boundaries are important regardless of how people identify, Cadet says. For white (or white-passing) employees, “their boundaries are around relationships,” explains Cadet. “Am I still going to talk to this coworker who is clearly discriminatory, sexist, homophobic, or racist?” If you decide to continue to talk to them, what kind of boundaries can you set around conversation topics and discussion points? Of course, this can be difficult to do if the person in question is your supervisor or someone who wields a lot of power at the company. In this case, Cadet says that the best thing to do is to report them to HR, or at least talk to another supervisor or senior employee that you have a good relationship with.
For BIPOC, it might be saying, “I don’t want to educate today, I’m tired,” or having resources on hand to direct people to—whether it be books, podcasts, or video clips—when they find themselves on the receiving end of diversity and inclusion-related questions. Giving yourself a break is just as important as doing the work, Cadet says. “We have to make sure we are whole before we’re helping other people.”