Sonja Gittens-Ottley believes that most workers want to have conversations about diversity. The problem, she says, is that they are not sure how their statements and questions might be interpreted by their colleagues. So they tend to be extra cautious. “Which means nothing gets said,” she observes.
Gittens-Ottley has a stake in making those conversations happen. She recently became part of a small but growing cohort of change agents in tech when she was hired to be the diversity and inclusion lead at Asana, the team productivity software provider.
As the tech sector addresses its diversity problem, reports have been generated, strategies outlined, and other measures have been aimed at attracting a talent pool that equally represents all types of workers. Making diverse employees feel comfortable and included after they’re hired is another step down that path. Tactics like mandatory training or other measures don’t always work. But conversations, both structured and informal, are an important part of that process, according to Gittens-Ottley. And the payoff is substantial. A recent report indicated that workforce diversity could add up to $570 billion to the industry.
Larger organizations such as AT&T tout the potential of employee resource groups to provide support, advocacy, education, and mentoring to employees who are underrepresented minorities. At Asana, Gittens-Ottley is also creating groups that make sense for a staff of just over 200 people.
“Employee groups tend to be undervalued in terms of what they can do,” says Gittens-Ottley, “but I really see them as a way to connect with peers and even people outside the company.” As such, Asana has a group for people of color as well as a women’s group. “It’s not just for people who identify [as being part of one of those groups], but for allies too,” she says.
Gittens-Ottley also works to foster discussion forums about race, religion, and sexuality. In the wake of the Orlando shooting, she says, employees came together to talk and support the LGBT members of Asana’s staff. She is also coordinating an upcoming conversation about Ramadan.
These latest conversations have been bolstered by a larger event that Gittens-Ottley set up to discuss being black in America. About 150 people in the San Francisco office turned out to hear four guest speakers, including Bari A. Williams, Facebook’s lead counsel, and Divine, a rapper and the founder of @blakfintech.
The key to the success of the program was grounded in how Gittens-Ottley set it up for the employees. “When I sent out the invitation to all staff,” she explains, “I asked them to feel free to come with questions, thoughts, varied points of view, and an open mind.” She also emphasized that questions would be assumed to be asked in order to learn and understand.
As a former attorney who worked on Yahoo’s legal team before becoming manager of Facebook’s global diversity program, Gittens-Ottley admits that she relies on her legal skills in mediation to help moderate and guide group conversations. She tells Fast Company that there are certain things both participants and moderators can do to create a safe space to have these sometimes uncomfortable conversations.
For starters, she says, “Think about the question you want to ask” and do some basic research. Gittens-Ottley did provide attendees with a list of articles to read and videos to watch in advance of the discussion of being black in America.
Once you learn a bit about the issue in question, says Gittens-Ottley, then you can engage with members of that community. It’s important to remember that everyone’s experience is unique, and not necessarily the experience of everyone who identifies in that way. “We’ve emphasized this in any discussions we have around an underrepresented community,” she says.
Gittens-Ottley says that if people are still uncomfortable asking, she encourages them to come to her, and she will ask on their behalf.
Lauren Aguilar, PhD, a partner at Paradigm, the diversity consultancy that worked with Asana before Gittens-Ottley was hired, says that while conversations can be difficult, those feelings are actually great. “They help us know we are learning,” Aguilar tells Fast Company. Even putting a foot in your mouth is okay, “as long as they are willing to listen and try again.”
Aguilar specializes in translating the science of diversity into strategies that organizations and individuals can use to support more diverse and inclusive workplaces. As such, she also recommends starting discussions with an icebreaker. “Each person shares something about themselves, such as where they call home, one thing they are grateful for this week, etc.,” she says. “Such activities create trust and empathy and help us see each other as individuals, not stereotypes.”
Aguilar advises against having people speak one at a time in front of the group. “That’s intimidating,” she asserts. “Try a pair and share.” First, have people jot down a few ideas alone, she explains. Then, pair up to discuss. “Finally, have each small group report back to the larger group for a fuller discussion,” she suggests.
The first step for employees who are members of the majority and want to support their underrepresented colleagues, says Gittens-Ottley, is to understand that you don’t know what it means to be part of the minority.
Take the time to listen and learn before speaking up. “You’re not required to be a savior,” Gittens-Ottley underscores. “Know when to step back and give space to those who are from the community.”
However, workers from the majority can take action. “This can be as simple as speaking up when someone says something that is discriminatory,” she says.
Conversations should get easier the more people have them, says Gittens-Ottley. “It takes time to build those muscles.”