5 Ways to Step Up Diversity, Equity and Inclusion in Your Workspace

March 19, 2021, Post by Stephanie Porfiris

When it comes to improving diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI), organizations can’t afford to make assumptions about what employees need to thrive. It takes research, conversation, active listening and, for many of us, a willingness to check our privilege and open up to the fact that we need to be doing better — way better. 

Elevate Equality, presented by TD, aimed to do just that. In a five-part weekly series, we welcomed experts from across businesses and DEI focus areas to discuss what organizations (and their employees) can do to move forward into a more inclusive tomorrow. Here’s some of what we learned.

1. Embrace people’s whole selves at work.

Bloom CEO, Avery Francis, has lived experience as a Black-identifying woman in the workplace. She spent years trying to better fit in with colleagues who had rigid expectations when it came to ‘professionalism’. 

For members of under-represented groups, there is often pressure — even an unspoken requirement —  to blend in among peers and coworkers. For Avery, one of the ways she accomplished this was straightening her natural hair on a regular basis  — a practice she has since given up. 

Avery brought up one of her own experiences with code-switching:

“As a Black-identifying woman, I know that I would love to be invited into a workspace or an environment, whether it be virtually or even physically, that doesn’t force me to code-switch.”

Code-switching is a survival mechanism often adopted by members of an underrepresented group, where a person alters their behaviour to optimize the comfort of others. Across our country, at every given second employees are changing their use of words, intonation, and affectation, to fit in among a majority group.

When this happens on a regular basis in the workplace it creates an idea of ‘professional etiquette’ that includes only one type of behaviour. Things that fall outside of that set of behaviours are considered unprofessional when, in reality, they’re just different styles — each as professional as the last. 

It’s important for organizations to foster an environment where all employees are fully embraced as themselves, not just an edited version. 

Celebrate differences, and don’t dismiss certain tendencies as unprofessional just because they don’t sound or look like everybody else.

2. Implement standardized DEI protocols.

If a fire started in your office, your employees would know to follow fire protocol; a predetermined, agreed-upon series of steps set in place to keep everyone safe in the event of an emergency.

Take a look at how Avery Francis sees it:

To promote diversity, equity, and inclusion, your team should develop, implement and promote a clear course of action for  issues related to DEI such as: 

  • Microaggressions
  • Harassment
  • Misconduct

Here are a few tips for developing that policy:

Be consistent: Develop a uniform, objective, prearranged system so all employees know their concerns will be taken seriously, they know where to go for support, and they know they’re being treated fairly across the board. 

Be collaborative: Give employees a hand in creating systems for handling these issues so they feel like an active part of the solution. Plus, you’ll be sure you’re getting multiple perspectives. But remember, it is never the responsibility of members of underrepresented communities to educate people about their experiences. It is the responsibility of people with privilege to seek information out and educate themselves to the best of their ability. Be sure to compensate participants for the time and energy it takes to weigh in on these issues.

Be proactive: Don’t wait until something has already happened — get ahead of it so that your team knows exactly where to go for help, advocacy and support if something does.

3. Don’t make assumptions about what employees want. Ask!

Bestselling author and world change warrior, Spencer West, uses a wheelchair. When asked how employers can best accommodate team members with physical disabilities, his advice is simple: ask them what they need. 

He recalls an example of how a former employer who, instead of guessing, took him on a tour of the facility and asked Spencer to point out all the modifications he would like to have made. The most important part? They took note, and they delivered on it.

Think about it this way: if you hired a highly specialized role, like a graphic designer, would you just guess what equipment they need to do their job well? Probably not. You’d ask them, and then you’d get them the right tools. And next time, when you hire a new designer, maybe you’ll have a head start on that infrastructure, but you’ll still ask them for their requirements before they start — because every designer is different. It’s as simple as that. 

And remember, disabilities aren’t always visible, so take care to ask everyone what they need in terms of accommodation. Molly Ford, the VP of Global Equality Programs at Salesforce, advocates for asking employees of all levels and roles for their opinions on how their team can be made more accessible. Utilize surveys, meetings, and even just casual conversation, to make sure you’re taking everyone’s voice into consideration.

When you create space for everyone’s voice to be heard, you allow your organization to learn from opinions and perspectives that historically have been kept silent. 

4. Make sure leaders set a good example.

Shibani Ahuja — the VP of Digital Performance, Canadian Personal Banking, TD — walked viewers through the importance of leadership buy-in when it comes to DEI efforts.

The tone starts at the top. Employees look up and mimic the behaviours of the people above them. If the highest level of leadership is anything less than completely supportive of DEI efforts, the effect is felt throughout the organization. 

Shavonne Hasfal-McIntosh, the Diversity and Belonging Lead at Shopify, believes that not only must leadership be invested in DEI, but those at the top must articulate that investment. Managers and bosses and team leads must be vocal in their support for DEI efforts. 

Leadership sets the tone because people look up and mimic the people above them. What tone are the people at the top of your organization setting?

5. Create space for more voices.

IQ Labs Inc co-founder Julian Mitchell believes in expanding DEI efforts outwards. 

“Invest in other people, platforms, and movements that are already telling these stories,” he advises.

Julian encourages companies to invest resources in people and other organizations that are already championing DEI-focused causes. There are so many opportunities available to organizations looking to improve their own diversity, equity, and inclusion practices, including acting as a collaborator, partner, or investor in projects that are focused on DEI. 

Here are Julian’s thoughts on the implications of collaboration:

Companies can use their own platforms to elevate the platforms of smaller storytellers, changemakers, and activists, and can help to shine the spotlight on these ever-important issues. 

At the end of the day, a lot of DEI seems to come down to questions. Ask yourself why you think a certain behaviour is unprofessional. If you can’t put your finger on why, the answer just might be a personal bias. 

Ask team members about their experiences, fears, or discomforts, and then develop systems to mitigate the risk of negative experiences, and tell people where they can go if they encounter one. 

Ask new hires and existing team members what they need to be comfortable, and then deliver on it. 

Most importantly, once you’ve met the needs of your team, ask yourself how you can amplify the impact. And once you’re done asking, here’s the really important thing: 

Act on it.