A few years ago, I met with a VP of a major organization that was, it said, searching for ways to become more anti-racist, inclusive, and culturally competent. A multi-billion-dollar corporation, it was plagued by the usual malaise of low BIPOC representation, not only in the C-suite but down stream as well. And it was baffled at the low level of interest in what I call the ‘saris and samosas’ cultural activities it engaged in during South Asian, Black or National Indigenous History Months. All this to say they were looking for deep and meaningful engagement with Diversity.
Short of the story is I did not get to work with this company—which is fine. That happens all the time with those of us who ply our trade in a competitive environment.
It was an observation my intermediary who introduced me to the VP made regarding my presentation though that came to mind recently in a case involving another diversity company who got a similar response from another company: “the presentation format was not what we’re used to. We have extremely high standards here”.
In both cases the presentation, we were told, wasn’t the reason we didn’t get the project.
But here’s what got me connecting these two incidents: in their pride of “high professional standards” of formatting, did these organizations miss out on what might have probably brought them the exact solutions they needed to address their diversity woes?
Recruiting for Diversity…Onboarding for Conformity
To be clear, my rumination is not about power point formats. We all know how distracting even a t-uncrossed and an I not dotted can be for detail-oriented people. It’s like trying to maintain a straight face during a serious Zoom meeting when unbeknownst to them the speaker’s cat is on the mantle in the background cleaning itself (It has happened!). Or like trying not to look at the spinach in the teeth of the person you’re talking to.
What the incidents got me thinking about was a phrase I heard somewhere: many organizations recruit for diversity….but they onboard for conformity. They say they want ‘diversity of thought’. But their staff with diverse thoughts know better than express them: they know they will be banished to the Outer Regions.
Post George Floyd/#metoo-raised awareness (sometimes guilt) about Why So White has triggered a flash flood of commitments to being more ‘inclusive/antiracist/anti-oppression’. But look closer and you will find the rest of that sentence: “…but they must be a good fit for us”.
Distinguishing the Negotiables from the Non-Negotiables
It’s time for organizations to Get Real on their actual desire for diversity.
In a recent video I saw, a young Black Kansas woman shreds any veneer of pretence that her community is satisfied with steps their Police Department is taking to rehabilitate its relationship with them. She points out searingly: ‘Eating ice cream with the kids won’t impress us, when in 10 years they will be nothing more than targets of your racial profiling. You can’t be our saviours and our oppressors at the same time.’
An organization can’t want diversity, then when diversity shows up it rejects it because it does not fit the mold they claim they’re trying to break.
How to do this without jeopardizing what’s important? Distinguish between the negotiable and the non-negotiable.
Is this policy/practice/expectation/tradition critical to our ability to get the job done? Then it’s non-negotiable. So, look for ways to use diversity in making that non-negotiable even more effective.
And if the policy/practice/expectation/tradition is really a peripheral nice-to-have? Dump it. It’s only standing in the way of the ‘inclusive/antiracist/anti-oppression’ state you so desperately seek!