Why we need to talk about diversity in the workplace and how to start those conversations

Diversity in the workplace is important and invaluable. Some of the most brilliant ideas, breakthroughs and developments of the past decade (or more) have incubated in culturally diverse workplaces.  As a manager, small business owner or entrepreneur, you are aware of the importance of diversity in the workplace and have adopted policies that encourage a culturally diverse work force. Despite how far we as a society have come towards multi-cultural and diverse workplaces, it is still awkward and uncomfortable to have conversations within organisations about diversity and inclusion. This article looks at why these uncomfortable conversations are important, and gives your some tips on how to start an awkward conversation in your organisation.

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Get comfortable feeling uncomfortable


Have you read Collective Hub magazine? It was always jam packed with inspiring stories about extraordinary people.

In issue 34 Tara Francis spoke with AirBnB Chief Marketing Officer Jonathan Mildenhall about diversity in the workplace, building a super brand, and listening to your mother.  Mildenhall has many “firsts” to his name, like being the first ethnic minority to be taken on by a London advertising agency. As Coca-Cola’s head of advertising he was the most senior ethnic minority who was openly gay in the company. Being openly gay and mixed-race means he has had more than his fair share of awkward conversations about diversity in the workplace.

“Leadership in all organisations have to lean into the uncomfortable truth of [the awkwardness]. We have to have uncomfortable conversations” Mildenhall told Collective Hub. “It’s even uncomfortable for me…when I’m having conversations about people’s opinions on ethnic minorities in the workplace or LBGT communities in the workplace or people who don’t come from an academic background, I sense the uncomfortableness and that’s as someone who has been in business for over 20 years. So what can we do about it? Put the uncomfortable truth as an agenda item to discuss and help everyone understand that if everyone is feeling uncomfortable about what we are talking about right now, that’s okay.”


How does an internal conversation differ from performance management?

When we think of “difficult conversations” or “uncomfortable conversations” in the workplace, many of us think of one-to-one discussions in which you must tell your staff member something they don’t want to hear. Examples that spring to mind are performance reviews, disciplinary meetings or denying a request for a pay rise. Those types of conversation are important and can be uncomfortable for everyone involved, but that is not what we are talking about here.

An internal conversation is about shifting the culture of the whole team or workplace. It is a round table discussion to which everyone is invited – encouraged even – to pull up a chair and take part. As Mildenhall says, we need to put the uncomfortable truth as an agenda item to discuss. But how to do this in practice? Does he mean literally put “Workplace Diversity” on you next team meeting agenda?


It’s an ongoing conversation, not a one-time agenda item

Changing culture in the workplace is challenging and cannot be accomplished in one meeting or one week. It is an ongoing process that must be encouraged and rewarded.


Talk about it ahead of time to give others time to get used to the idea

As I said above, this is not an issue of discipline or performance management, it is the beginning of a cultural shift within the organisation. How you choose to introduce the topic will depend in part on your own style and the current make up and culture of your organisation. You might use statistics about the makeup of your work force to start the conversation, or the introduction of a new client, joint venture partner or staff member. Or you might reflect upon a news item or article relevant to your industry, for example, Lawyers Weekly has recently examined the nexus between gender equality and justice, and the uplifting story of a South Sudanese refugee fulfilling their dream of becoming a lawyer with the aid of a financial scholarship. Be careful however not to single out any one person or group and make them feel they are suddenly being put in the spotlight. Use language that is neutral and relevant to everyone in the team. For example, you might share the South Sudanese Scholar and ask your staff “I’d like to talk about ways we can encourage migrants and refugees to become part of our steam” or “What a great story! Do you think we could help other refugee students fulfil their dreams?”


Choose a time when people are not stressed out

End of month, end of financial year or right before a big project is due to be delivered is not the best time to start this conversation. Nor is it ok to stick this at the bottom of a long agenda to be rushed through, glossed over or stood over to the next meeting. This is important and should be treated as such.

For some of your team, this may be the first time they have been asked to think about workplace diversity or have their views (gently) challenged. It can be difficult – even painful – for some people to change the way they think and speak about culture in the workplace, so make sure you give them plenty of time and don’t rush them.


Acknowledge the awkwardness

It’s weird and uncomfortable talking about topics that we tend to ignore, side step or ‘take as read’. The best and easiest way to help your team understand that if everyone is feeling uncomfortable about what we are talking about right now, that’s okay is to show that you’re feeling awkward too. Start the conversation with “This feels awkward to say/ask, but…” or “Today we are going to get comfortable feeling uncomfortable”. The important thing with this approach is to then jump right in to whatever the topic of the day is. Don’t spend too much time with caveats and explanations, rip that band-aid off and ask the question.


Slow down and remember to breathe

Many of us, when we feel nervous or uncomfortable, speak to quickly and take shallow breaths or none at all. If you feel yourself doing this, place both feet flat on the floor, roll your shoulders back and take a deep breath. It’s ok to have pauses between thoughts or sentences, and its ok to leave a silence to grow for a few moments after you’ve asked a question or made a bold statement.

If you notice your team getting tense, forgetting to breath and speaking too quickly, maybe lead a breathing exercise or introduce a “laughing yoga” exercise.


Plan, practice, but don’t write a script

Another thing that happens to many of us in moments of stress and discomfort is we forget what we wanted to say. You freeze up, then panic and forget not just what you had planned to say, but how to speak at all!

It can help to plan what you want to say by jotting down notes and key points before your conversation, but be open and flexible. Remember, this is a conversation not a monologue, so there is no need to write out your speech and learn it work for word. As with all uncomfortable situations, it can help to rehearse what you might say ahead of time, especially if there terms, phrases or names that are unfamiliar to you. Ask a friend, family member or trusted colleague if you can practice your introductory remarks with them. Use the notes you have made, and run through it a few times to get comfortable feeling uncomfortable.


Use neutral language and correct descriptors

Do your research first and make sure that you are using language that is not going to offend or inflame. Many minority groups have words and phrases they use to describe themselves and prefer to be used generally. Find out what they are, make a note and use them – you can even say that you are referring to your notes because you want to make sure you use the right phrasing.


Share stories and encourage others to do the same – humans love stories

We are social beings and from cradle to the grave we enjoy hearing and telling stories. A good story teller can have their audience in the palm of their hand, hanging off every word.  Whether they are standing in the break room, on stage in front of thousands, or directing a multi-million dollar movie, story tellers have the power to move us and to change our behaviour.

Stories stick in the memory long after a list of facts and figures do. (In fact, that is how I recall details of matter I worked on as a lawyer – by asking what’s the story, what’s the hook? Tell me it’s the case with the woman who took her cat to court and all the details come flooding back to me; tell me her name and I am likely to draw a blank). So, tell stories, even if they are not your own. Recount stories from films or tv shoes you’ve seen, articles you’ve read, situations you have observed, then link it back to the topic of the day and the diversity challenge you are facing in your workplace. Encourage others in the group to share their own stories, and thank them for sharing when they’re done.


Have fun with it – this is not a chore

As we’ve said above, this is not a matter of discipline or performance review, it’s opening the door to a new culture of diversity and harmony, so don’t be afraid to have a bit of fun. Laugh at yourself, laugh at the awkwardness of it all, but don’t laugh at other people or groups. Keep it light and fun.


Ask for input, and provide the opportunity for people to speak to you privately as well as in the public forum

This is an ongoing conversation so encourage you staff to come to you with their ideas, thoughts, observations, concerns and celebrations. Make sure they know they can come to you privately if they don’t want to share their thoughts in the public forum; and if they do contribute to the conversation, thank them for sharing.


Talk about it outside the meeting – normalise it, make it part of the everyday conversation

The more you talk about diversity in the workplace and society in general, the less awkward and uncomfortable it will feel. Set the example by talking about diversity in positive terms. Find ways to praise and complement diversity where you see it. As the leader of your workplace, it is also up to you to address and redress any negative, discriminatory or nasty comments about cultural diversity and those who may identify as a minority or “other”. Merely saying that your organisation “does not tolerate” discrimination is not enough; you must counteract any discriminatory attitudes by demonstrating a warm, welcoming and inclusive attitude. You must step up and set the example for others to follow. Use all the correct terminology, titles and descriptors, and politely correct those who use inappropriate phrases. Be the change you wish to see in your workplace culture.


Remember the Golden Rule

Above all else, this is still a workplace conversation and your team is made up of fellow human beings. Be mindful of others’ feelings, and never be rude. Treat everyone in your workplace as you’d like to be treated. Practice empathy, check in that everyone is ok, and ask yourself “If I was on their side of the table, how would I want this to be handled? How would I feel if this was my community, family and identity being discussed?”


Over to you

As leader in your field, it is up to you to “lean into the uncomfortable truth of [awkwardness and] to have uncomfortable conversations”. An internal conversation is about shifting the culture of the whole team or workplace. It is a round table discussion to which everyone is invited – encouraged even – to lean in and take part. Changing culture in the workplace is challenging and cannot be accomplished in one meeting or one week. It is an ongoing process that must be encouraged and rewarded. This article has shown you how you can get that conversation started. Where is goes after that is entirely up to you.

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