I once attended a presentation by a senior executive where the speaker used the phrase “noose tightening around our necks” to describe changes in the regulatory environment.
To some, the words may have been unremarkable, but the symbol of the noose is steeped in a history of violence against blacks that sadly, continues to be used to invoke antiblack sentiment to this day. After the presentation, I shared my concerns with the executive, who responded with alarm and honest regret, pledging to remove the phrase from his vernacular.
I began my career as an attorney, at various points representing union members, so I am accustomed to stepping up and combatting the social mechanisms that enable discrimination. Today, as the global head of diversity and inclusion of a major investment bank, I think about the people at our firm who are early in their careers, and if they would feel as comfortable as I did to speak up.
Over the past decade, companies in virtually every industry have heeded the call from activists, investors, stakeholders, and younger generations to diversify their workforces. A recent Gallup poll revealed that 55% of employees say their workplaces have policies that promote diversity and inclusion. Yet women make up only 21% of the C-suite, and people of color make up just 14%, according to McKinsey.
Inclusion is about more than representation
In the financial services industry, numbers speak volumes and measurement drives action. Diversity is relatively easy to measure, and while it is critical, it’s not enough. Companies must also foster a sense of inclusion, which involves appreciating differences and recognizing the value they add to an organization.
Diversity is about representation. Inclusion is about giving people a sense of belonging, connectivity, and empowerment to speak up and share their ideas. This is where most firms, including in my industry, still have work to do. How do we ensure everyone feels valued and equipped to perform their best?
Advocates must lead by example
Companies that make measurable progress in the areas of diversity and inclusion often do so thanks to advocates who lead by example. These individuals demonstrate inclusive leadership behaviors, act as vocal and visible champions for marginalized groups, and speak up when a situation isolates, embarrasses, or demeans someone else. Building an inclusive environment requires trust, which is why the most effective champions for inclusion embody three values: transparency, vulnerability, and courage.
Leaders must be transparent about their commitment to inclusion, both internally and externally. Setting actionable goals and sharing them publicly demonstrates commitment and boosts accountability. Executives and managers should speak to their teams regularly about how they are doing with regard to representation. Managers should offer public praise and highlight the work of team members who are promoting inclusion. It sends a signal that the company values their contributions to improve the workplace.
Building strong relationships is essential to gain support for initiatives to drive inclusion. This requires a willingness to be vulnerable. Taking a leap of faith and standing up for what you believe is right, despite the possibility of being questioned, is paramount to creating change.
This isn’t currently the norm in the American workplace. So fostering vulnerability needs to start at the top. Senior leaders should share stories of personal challenges, examples of when they erred and how those issues led them to adopt a more inclusive approach. Starting a dialogue among employees from different backgrounds can help to build common ground that catalyzes inclusive behavior.
Championing inclusion requires the courage to speak up and say, “we need to do more, we need to do better and this needs to change.” True advocates must be comfortable having uncomfortable conversations. It’s critical for leadership to signal that this is encouraged in the workplace. Don’t ignore when others are talked over or ignored—acknowledge it so that everyone knows they have a right to speak up. It takes repeated efforts to regularly reinforce these values in written and verbal communications to ensure inclusion becomes standard practice.
Moving forward toward a bright, diverse, and inclusive future
I truly believe the corporate world has come to recognize diversity and inclusion as a business imperative. The next step is for companies to clarify that everyone has a role to play in achieving better results. Marginalized groups cannot be responsible for making change happen on their own. We must all commit to being inclusion advocates—not bystanders who allow the status quo to continue and are deemed complicit.
In my own office, we’ve developed initiatives that encourage our teams to consider diversity and inclusion as two sides of the same coin. In 2018, we launched our Speak Up for Inclusion campaign, a series of events and programs that promote the importance of being empowered to speak up—whether that’s calling attention to inappropriate conduct or contributing to a business-related discussion.
This year, we launched a campaign called “That Little Voice,” which gives light to the voice we all have in our heads that gives us the gut feeling to speak up when we witness something that feels wrong. We’re creating videos, guidebooks, and other resources to educate and empower our team members to drive inclusive cultural change.
Inclusion fosters ideation, expands our horizons, and enables innovation that drives business profitability. It’s our responsibility as business leaders to ensure that we infuse our entire organizations with inclusivity—and to take as much care measuring, reporting on, and enhancing diversity and inclusion efforts as we do managing the bottom line.
Sandye Taylor is the global head of Diversity and Inclusion at RBC Capital Markets.