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Many companies are focusing more on diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging. For individuals, the existence or absence of a feeling of belonging can transform their work experience, performance, and satisfaction. When you belong, and when you can show up as your authentic self, you are more likely to not only survive at work, but thrive. An exclusionary environment, one that denies you the opportunity to be yourself, or expects you to withhold certain parts of yourself, can chip away at your confidence, relationships, and commitment in meaningful and often painful ways. We all want to be accepted for who we are, including those aspects of our identity that are visible as well as those parts of ourselves that we hold more closely or that are not visible.
important This conversation is evolving, and thankfully, becoming one that is top of mind for leaders and businesses everywhere. As this book is being written, dynamic discussions and debates are influencing the “what”, “when” and “how,” but also the “who” and “why” for initiatives and actions tied to diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging. The language and priorities are shifting while leaders react, respond, and commit to a path forward. In this section and throughout the book, I’ll use the abbreviation DEI for diversity, equity, and inclusion. Belonging and justice are part of the equation, though not as familiar as part of an acronym at this time. On the note of acronyms and language, different terms are used or preferred in different contexts and awareness about the nuance and significance of these terms is beneficial (find out more about exclusionary words you might come across in the hiring process here and culturally conscious identifiers here). The landscape will change by tomorrow and your own perspective may be very different from that which is presented here or elsewhere—and that’s the point! As you approach your career and find the opportunities that are right for you, your own experience and opinions and how they relate to the company and team you’re considering joining, matter.
In a contrived structure like a hiring process, it can be difficult to know when to bring your full self into the conversation and to anticipate how others will respond to what is uniquely you. Though the topic is nuanced and conversations can be difficult to initiate, it is important that you realize you have permission to ask questions and advocate for yourself. Before you’d make a decision about accepting a role, you need to understand whether or not the work environment will build you up or break you down. Your happiness and health, not to mention your success, will depend on it.
For some, belonging is not something that is a conscious, daily effort. Perhaps you’ve always felt like you belonged at work, or have been part of the majority and never had an experience where you were excluded or treated differently because of who you are. If this is you, this section is as important for you as it is for those who have had dramatically different experiences. Gaining empathy and understanding about the lives of others is valuable as the implications of these realizations about your similarities and differences can have meaningful impacts on your work and life experience. As we become more connected and spend more time at work and with our colleagues, the need for community and belonging has become more present, visible, and urgent. Understanding whether or not this potential work environment values diversity and takes tangible steps to bring everyone along can be a key decision criteria as you think about how the work environment and team will shape you, your experience and knowledge, and your understanding of the world around you. Diversity in leadership significantly improves a company’s chances of success, in startups and established companies, and contributes toward the long-term culture and experience of the team as well.
There are many people, and perhaps even you, who know first hand the impact of being the only team member who is a person of color, who has a disability, who is LGBTQIA+, from a particular generation or the only woman in a room. For individuals who claim one or more of these identities or who bring yet another point of view and lived experience onto the team, a desire for belonging, as well as physical and psychological safety, are an omnipresent reality and priority. On top of the day-to-day stress of work, people with these visible or unseen aspects of identity are also subject to more microaggressions, discrimination, harassment, and violence.
No one wants to inadvertently join a company where they, or other team members, will be subject to unacceptable treatment and a lack of respect for their humanity. If we all seek out and demand environments that prioritize DEI, teams will become more representative, we’ll see the benefit of increasing innovation, and both businesses and individuals will thrive.
If you want to …
show up as your authentic self without having to assimilate, code switch, change or adjust parts of yourself;
work with team members who will embrace and respect your experiences (even if they do not or cannot understand them!), bring you along, and amplify your voice and talent; and
work for a company that supports the values, social movements and causes you believe in
… then take a proactive approach to understand how a company and team support diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging in the following dimensions.
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Evaluate the Company’s Efforts
Are a company’s efforts integral and genuine, or superficial and performative? As you research, prepare questions to ask your interviewers, and go through conversations, you will need to probe into the details about the company’s philosophy and tangible actions to understand where a particular organization and team are on their DEI journey.
Are the company’s efforts proactive—taking steps toward a more inclusive environment on an ongoing basis—or reactive—responding to issues or pressure only when they arise?
Does the company make statements or social posts but neglect to take specific internal actions that would lead to measurable change?
Do different team members, and specifically those in leadership positions, share contrary or inconsistent information about what the company believes or does to support diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging?
Does the topic come up frequently on their website, in external press or profiles, in job descriptions and interviews, or only if you ask questions about it?
A company where this work is integral to the business and their values will be well-poised to respond to the events happening in the world. Companies in this position can proactively adapt their employee experience and culture while referencing and improving existing programs and practices. These companies will have existing infrastructure that enable them to support employees, and to take timely, thoughtful, and genuine action—whether a statement, donation, or policy change—in a consistent and sustainable manner. The response to these actions (e.g. on review sites like Glassdoor or in comments below the social or blog posts) from current and former employees will demonstrate enthusiasm and support for the efforts.
On the other hand, if a company’s commitment is superficial or performative, you’ll see spotty or inconsistent responses to the events impacting the world or members of their team. An email, social post or statement might be released without the underlying structures or support to drive real, tangible change. In other cases, companies may quickly join a viral social trend without fully understanding the origins of the post or the implications of their use of a hashtag, as was apparent during the summer of 2020 when black squares filled social feeds and #BlackoutTuesday began to trend and disrupt the actual goals of the campaign. A superficial approach is one that may have good intentions accompanied by a lack of follow-through and the absence of resources, time, money, and dedicated roles to support the effort. Performative displays or actions are often for the sake of optics or attention and to get through a moment, rather than support a movement. It is hard for companies to respond to every local, national, or international cause with the same level of attention or action. The absence of a response in a particular situation might be grounded in a targeted strategy of supporting a specific type of cause or a preference for behind-the-scenes donations, among many other possible scenarios. As you explore, remember that things are usually more complicated than they appear.
Evaluate the Company’s Track Record and Roadmap
At the foundation, DEI work exists because individuals and leaders want to create and sustain positive change. To envision and create purposeful programs is difficult. To implement, maintain, and improve them is even more challenging. Some companies might be new to this work and “all in”; others have been at it for years and have barely tapped the surface of what is possible or necessary to make their workplace more representative, equitable, and inclusive.
Understanding where a company is coming from, as well as the plan for what they will do in the months or years that follow will illuminate aspects of their intentions and dedication to these efforts. To get to these insights, ask questions during your interviews that will help you examine the following:
Does the company have programs or existing metrics and data available that highlight the work that has been done and indicates a sustained, ongoing commitment to future endeavors?
Even if you would take a different approach, choose another way of framing or start with another initiative, do you feel comfortable and aligned with the progress, tactics and momentum you discover?
Does the company have a prioritization or decision-making structure in place to determine which specific issues or opportunities they will address in their DEI efforts? Can the interviewers speak to how DEI efforts are chosen or sequenced? For example, is the team going to focus first on internal training programs about unconscious bias or update their recruiting process to be more inclusive?
Are you able to find information about their partnerships, advertising spend, or investors to evaluate if there is consistency on the implied or stated values with that data or those decisions and outcomes?
Can interviewers provide information about progress and failures in order to demonstrate an iterative and learning-focused approach to DEI efforts?
No company has a perfect track record and there isn’t a formula for the roadmap of activities, investment, or changes to create a diverse, equitable, and inclusive workplace. Each company’s strengths and opportunities will be unique given the evolving needs of their workforce. This is true even within a company. Individuals on the same team or with the same title might have dramatically different experiences, relationships, and outcomes. It’s also true that departments or teams may have location-specific challenges based on the unique attributes of their environment and population. A one-size-fits-all approach is not sufficient, and could do more damage than good.
The process that a company uses to determine what investment and activities they dedicate time toward can indicate if they intend to solve the obvious or underlying problems as well as if they know who to bring into the conversation and how to make progress. Finding out what gets measured in surveys or employee data and how it gets presented to the team will also reinforce or invalidate the messages you hear throughout the hiring process.
As you go through the hiring process, from application through interviews and offer negotiations, ask revealing questions (the Ask Me This Instead section will equip you with some good ones!) and listen. In companies where this work is integral, you’ll hear evidence and find examples of momentum and also come across reflection and humility around the missteps and failures. There should be both. No journey is without detours and roadblocks and these insights will help you choose whether or not this is the place where you will want to contribute your energy, expertise, and experience.
Determine if You Want To and Can Be Part of the Journey
important Once you understand where a company is at, as well as where it is going, you may choose to see how you can be involved. Or not. You may care deeply about how DEI manifests at an organization and choose not to invest your personal attention, emotional labor, and action to the work. It’s also possible that you’ll decide to weave in and out depending on where you are at work and in life and what you want to dedicate your energy to in that period. For some, this results in feelings of guilt or the perception that others are judging you for your choices. Stay true to your purpose and choose your commitments—this is work you can contribute to if you want to. Underrepresented individuals or groups should not do all the work—it must be an opt-in, remunerated effort that is collaborative with allies.
Regardless of how you may choose to participate, it is helpful to be aware of what the team, committee, or related community structures look like at a particular company. Select questions that will help you understand the answers to the following as you move through the interview process.
Is this an “initiative” vs. a commitment or ongoing business priority?
Is this a HR program? Does the work depend on or sit solely within that function? This is important because the role of a HR team as it supports the business and mitigates risk may conflict with the interests of those trying to transform the team and experience with regard to DEI from the inside. It’s valuable to have someone in a leadership position who can partner with HR while advocating for these initiatives from a different perspective.
Does it have the support of the CEO and other C-level leadership?
Are the efforts tied to one person or a small group of people?
Does the company have employee resource groups (ERGs), affinity organizations, or similar groups in place? What is the frequency and nature of their interactions? What programs are in motion and how are they progressing? What budget do they have to work with? Do the groups have organizational support?
Does the company have a team or role dedicated to this work or is it something individuals do above and beyond their jobs?
Do you have information that there is empowerment and support (e.g. budget) for those who participate?
Are those involved open to new and even contrary points of view and will they respond to conflict and debate productively?
How do participants feel their contributions are viewed and valued?
If you decide to dedicate your time and effort to this work, you’ll want to know what you’re getting into and how it will complement or contrast with other aspects of your role and experience. If the work belongs to a certain team, or if there is a dedicated role, there may be a particular focus and limits to what you can influence or contribute. In other instances, companies will have grassroots efforts, where anyone can contribute (likely in a volunteer capacity) and help shape the agenda, but your resources may be limited and your contributions may not be viewed with the same weight or impact as those critical to your role. Be aware that in some companies, if your participation in DEI efforts is viewed as distracting from your contributions in your role, or if you are viewed as part of the push for change, it may undermine how your job performance is viewed.
You’ll have to make choices as you learn more in the interview process and once you’ve joined a company. As with other aspects of work, it’s unlikely you’ll find everything you’re looking for. By asking questions and exploring how the companies you interview with are approaching this work, you’re demonstrating the importance of these efforts. If every candidate asked about DEI in their interviews, the expectations and accountability to have a point of view and tangible evidence of a commitment would be reinforced. When you do this work and ask these questions, you’re helping to pave the way for the team members and candidates who will follow. If this is something that matters to you, ask every interviewer a question about it. What they say, or what they are unable to share, will tell you everything.
In working on this section, and on broader, related themes throughout the book, I partnered with Megan Abman, Karyn Lu, and Regina Motarjeme from Strata RMK Consulting to help expand my perspectives beyond the work environments I’ve been closest to in my career. With their deep passion, innate curiosity, data-driven and human-centric approach, the Strata team consults, educates, and leads teams and companies toward a resilient foundation and enduring commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion. I am grateful for their partnership and wisdom and inspired by their work.
There is a reason why “people are our greatest asset” or “the people are the best thing about working here” are quotes you often hear about the work experience. Who we spend our long days with, and how we interact, communicate and collaborate with them, are meaningful elements of our jobs. Later in the book, we’ll take a deep dive on specific people you’re likely to meet in the interview process to help you think through the importance of different relationships. This section will focus on a broader spectrum of relationship-oriented criteria, including team dynamics and leadership influence.
How do you know if people, and specifically the team dynamics and leadership influence tied to those relationships, are one of your top priorities?
You value and emphasize work relationships over work responsibilities.
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