The Art of Not DoingNovember 6, 2015
Race and Empathy in Corporate AmericaJuly 9, 2016
As a resident “go to” career “expert” (I say that humbly), I’ve been solicited by phone, email, and even over dinner to get my opinion on the topic of “diversity” — especially in the workplace. I’m often asked, and tasked with defending if companies are really committed to diversity or has it become just a niche word that they throw dollars at for awards and corporate conversation.
So what’s my opinion? (I thought you’d never ask).
Well first, let me say that diversity in itself is a complex, broad, and subjective word; and without being followed by the phrase “and inclusion” is often pretty useless. Secondly, it is a niche term that some companies’ get; and unfortunately others are getting it all wrong. Most people assume that workplace diversity is about increasing racial, national, gender or class representation—in other words, recruiting and retaining more people from traditionally underrepresented identity groups. But, in my opinion the objective of diversity should really boil down to four basic concepts: fairness, access, opportunity, and thoughtfulness of experience.
As we all know, the state of country has shown us through recent headlines, that we are not in a post racial or tolerant world. One would think that organizations would be scrambling to get it right and stay out of headlines.
Ah but they in fact are not!
In 2015 there were a few national blunders that became the focus of a happy hour debate that should have taught us all real lessons.
First there was the Starbuck’s diversity campaign called #Racetogether; a campaign that undoubtedly was created by a group of liked minded leaders who sat around a table and thought it was a brilliant idea. The concept was to go into your local Starbucks and ask your Barista to write the campaign hashtag on your favorite frap and then discuss the complexity of racism with a probably twenty something millennial while a line of people eager to catch a train or make their morning meeting were waiting behind you. In theory, it really was a creative idea, although the execution wasn’t fully thought out. Soon after, Twitter world went on the attack and not even the Starbuck’s VP of Communication Corey DuBrowa could brazenly discuss race or even answer simple questions like… But Starbucks doesn’t even spell my ethnic name right? In addition to a firestorm of concerns on why there was a lack of diversity in the actual marketing materials for the campaign. Instead of facing the challenge head on, he deleted his twitter page and blocked followers that challenged his “great” idea. The campaign eventually faded to black (no pun intended) just as quickly as it came.
Moral of the story: while they had good intentions someone should have shared you can’t marginalize race relations into a Starbucks purchase and a #hashtag – moreover, it is more important to be prepared than provocative.
Then there was Ahmad Mohamed a teen that loved robotics and engineering who brought a clock that he built to school to impress his teacher and ended up not with praise but in handcuffs. The Irving Texas Police said they received a call stating that there was a hoax bomb and when they arrived and questioned the young man he only kept saying it was a clock and wouldn’t tell them what it actually was… that’s because it actually was only a clock! Within days a hashtag movement ensued and #IstandwithAhmad was born. Along with the social media attention, Mohamed received encouragement from the “whose who” of celebrities including President Obama, Hillary Clinton, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerbeg and a slew of others celebrities and Americans showing support and praising the young man’s genius while admonishing the school and also the overzealous Irving police. Ahmad went on to be invited to numerous STEM opportunities and events for kids across the country, while the teacher, principal, and district leadership were all left with egg on their face. Leaving them to parents protesting for answers and removing their students for schools who actually embrace diversity.
Moral of the story: Even a broken clock is right two times a day. Be slow to judge and quick to understand. Unconscious bias and profiling can be a one-way ticket to a PR nightmare.
Next up was Twitter itself, although they are able to be the powerful engine around major campaigns and social movements like the ones above and #blacklivesmatter. They can’t seem to avoid their own plague of diversity woes that faces most tech companies in Silicon Valley alongside their peers like Google, Yahoo, Apple, and Facebook. They are struggling to recruit and retain minority talent. Recently, former Twitter engineering manager Leslie Miley ousted the company and said he left them due to the lack of diversity and their unconscious tendency to not address diversity issues both internally and within the external market as it related to consumers.
With an over index of black users on Twitter, Miley was upset that it was not reflective in the representation within their leadership ranks. He shared on a televised interview that he couldn’t in good faith stay and be the only minority where he is often discounted or misunderstood. While his concern didn’t turn into a hash tag movement (pretty sure we know why) it has gotten a ton of media coverage that is not exactly great press for Twitter.
Moral of the Story: If you are going to talk about it, be about it!
Lastly, we have the University of Missouri Students who protested calling for the resignation of school President Tim Wolfe; after his lack of attention and action when black students expressed their displeasure over other students openly using racial slurs and other racially charged incidents. Enter #concernstudent1950 (named after the year African-American students were first admitted to the university), shortly thereafter a student declared a hunger strike on campus to get the concerns of the students heard. However, the movement gained national social media attention when 30 black members of the Missouri Tigers football team declared that they would not take the field until the President resigned. If the firestorm of media attention weren’t bad enough, the possibility of prominent college football program missing a game would have cost the school more than it could afford. Within a weeks’ time the President had issued a public apology and held a press conference announcing his resignation. And as they say the rest is history.
Moral of the Story: Inaction to intolerance or inclusion is assumed agreement.
So, what should you do to avoid these pitfalls at your company?
You can’t prepackage your approach. Off the shelf training around diversity doesn’t allow leaders to really evaluate their unconscious bias and be measured to a standard of inclusion. One of the major reasons diversity initiatives fail is because they aren’t “S.M.A.R.T.” That is, they aren’t … Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, or Timely.
Good intention with poor execution yields horrible outcomes. (just ask Starbucks). Being a bigger and more successful company you have to have an intolerance of failure and the courage to admit you failed. I commend Starbucks for their #racetogether idea, but failure sometimes yields a better conversations around lessons learned. Be willing to try again.
If there’s not one minority seated at the table to say “hey guys this is really a bad idea”. Sorta like calling the cops on a kid that just built a clock. Make sure your team reflects diversity of thought and relationship just to have a voice of better reason when a “group think” bias decision is on the table.
Don’t have diversity efforts that are not fulfilling their promise. Diversity starts from the top and if there isn’t a diverse team of leaders both in cultural experience and in thought, seated in your C-Suite, it’s probably a strong indicator for why you still are addressing diversity issues in the first place.
So there you have it. Cheers to doing it better next time and a 2016 of better decisions! If anyone needs a diverse opinion and sounding board give me a ring but please don’t make any more rash decision that make you the next #hashtag!
That’s the Tea,