Answering the call

Creating an IT culture of inclusiveness and belonging

For too long, and out of necessity, Black IT professionals have been silent about their experience. Creating a safe space to engage, listen and learn from others is a necessary first step towards creating a workplace culture that fully supports and values people of color.

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Editor's note: This article is the second in a four-part series on how IT leaders can effectively address systemic racism in their organizations. Start reading here or jump to the first article in the series, which lays the groundwork for effectively addressing systemic racism

Acknowledging that systemic racism exists in our society and recognizing the many different ways it has adversely impacted the Black community, as well as other people of color, is a key first step to successfully addressing systemic racism in the workplace.  IT leaders must also condemn systemic racism and make a genuine commitment to cultivating a workplace culture that promotes equality, equity and justice for all employees.

But lasting change does not happen overnight, and it does not take place strictly by proclamation.  A critical step in the early stages of preparing the organization for dynamic change includes reimagining a new workplace culture that will transform the employee experience, particularly for those individuals who have been historically disadvantaged by systemic racism. 

Seizing the leadership moment

Establishing a progressive vision that aligns with the core values of the organization requires that IT leaders first thoroughly understand the specific elements of the existing organizational culture that have contributed to the present state of inequality for all marginalized groups of employees. There are no quick solutions to this systemic issue.  Instead, gaining a deep understanding of the current state of the work environment requires leaders to thoughtfully engage, listen and learn from all employees adversely impacted by systemic racism. 

This preemptive leadership action is critical to effectively redefining the workplace culture because it:

  • Conveys to the staff that the IT leadership team is fully committed to clearly understanding the various impacts of cultural disparities that currently exist in the organization;
  • Promotes a culture of inclusion and belonging by demonstrating to all employees that the IT leadership team genuinely values their thoughts and opinions; and
  • Provides the IT leadership team with an opportunity to assess where the greatest gaps exist between the current employee experience and the desired workplace culture.

Furthermore, transformational change is fueled by the power of dialogue that occurs among individuals who share a vested interest in bringing a new vision to fruition.

Developing an informed perspective

Before engaging employees to discuss how to establish a fair and equitable workplace culture, IT leaders should conduct their own preliminary research in an effort to better understand the unique experiences of people of color.  First, leaders should engage their respective HR leaders to initially review the organization’s current diversity metrics to identify areas of strength and opportunity for all underrepresented groups across the organization.  Examples of such metrics include workforce demographics by department, hiring activity over the past 12 months,  promotions over the past 12 months, succession planning demographics, management demographics, and turnover data.

Second, leaders must educate themselves about key aspects of the Black experience in the workplace that may differ from the experiences of other people of color and other underrepresented groups. This deliberate leadership action will go a long way toward building personal credibility with all people of color and will have a profound impact on their ability to genuinely connect with Black talent.

According to a recent research study conducted by the Center for Talent Innovation, Black professionals experience significantly more racial prejudice in the workplace than other minority groups.  By taking the proactive measure of educating themselves, IT leaders can begin to develop a depth of awareness about several key concepts that are often relevant to people of color in the workplace.  These include: 

  • Unconscious bias: "[Unconsious bias is the] underlying attitudes and stereotypes that people unconsciously attribute to another person or group of people that affect how they understand and engage with a person or group." (Built In)
  • White privilege: "[W]hite privilege is not the assumption that everything a white person has accomplished is unearned…Instead, white privilege should be viewed as a built-in advantage, separate from one’s level of income or effort." (Teaching Tolerance)
  • Code switching: "[C]ode-switching involves adjusting one’s style of speech, appearance, behavior, and expression in ways that will optimize the comfort of others in exchange for fair treatment, quality service, and employment opportunities." (HBR)
  • Racial gaslighting: "The point of gaslighting is to undermine and make a person question their own judgement, perception or memory. Racial gaslighting is exactly the same – only it makes the victim question their judgement on issues of racism." (Metro)
  • Microaggressions: [Microaggressions are] brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioral, and environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative racial, gender, sexual orientation, and religious slights and insults to the target person or group." (Forbes)

Becoming well informed about the unique experiences of Black talent will enable leaders to sincerely demonstrate awareness of the various struggles people of color encounter in the workplace. 

Engaging the invisible few

Front line workers such as grocery store clerks, delivery men and women, and healthcare workers have traditionally been relegated to the background or treated as invisible in society.  Today, these individuals are rightfully being celebrated as everyday heroes given the important roles that they have played in supporting their communities during the COVID-19 pandemic.  Similarly, Black talent, and other marginalized groups, have also been made to feel invisible in the workplace for generations. There are several cultural ways to feel invisible, including  gender, race, economic or marital status, prejudice or non-acceptance, or being seen as what you do and not for who you are, writes Dr. Margaret Rutherford in an article on PsychCentral.

This dynamic has persisted based on how Black talent has been conditioned to succeed in the workplace. According to research done by the Center for Talent Innovation that was released in 2017,   “…38% of Black professionals also feel that it is never acceptable at their companies to speak out about their experience of bias — a silence that makes them more than twice as vulnerable to feelings of isolation and alienation in the workplace.”

That being the case, IT leaders must recognize that inviting people of color to engage in open dialog regarding race in the workplace may, at first, be met with legitimate feelings of skepticism and trepidation.  Understand that speaking up about their personal experiences conflicts with how Black talent has been socialized to survive at work.  Viola Maxwell-Thompson, President and CEO of Information Technology Senior Management Forum (ITSMF) tells CIO.com's Beth Stackpole that Black people are taught from a young age "to keep their head down and get their work done, not to make waves, and to not make mistakes at the risk of getting fired."   

Given the cumulative impact of generations of disparate treatment and the historical lack of discussions regarding racial disparity in the workplace, Black talent is often at risk of experiencing decreased levels of engagement at work.  The Center for Talent Innovation's research found that Black employees who do not have a chance to speak up are 13 times more likely to be disengaged at work.

IT leaders must consider how they can sincerely build trust with people of color, starting with exercising patience and understanding when inviting disadvantaged groups of employees to openly share their personal experiences.  Most importantly, leaders must remember that obtaining this feedback is not about them and should not be undertaken in pursuit of a goal other than authentically connecting with the invisible few who have not had a voice in the past. 

Listening to understand

IT leaders must be open to having challenging conversations with all employees and get comfortable with being uncomfortable. In these conversations, they will need to acknowledge that they will not have all of the right answers, avoid becoming defensive, and be genuinely interested in learning from all employees, particularly those who have been historically silenced. 

They must also establish clear rules of engagement to help promote honest and constructive dialog among the staff during each engagement.  For instance, all employees should have an opportunity to be heard and be encouraged to propose novel ideas.  Also, during moments of interpersonal conflict, leaders must thoughtfully intervene to ensure that the conversation remains productive and respectful for all parties involved.

Additionally, employing active listening skills is key to demonstrating empathetic leadership.  “In an interpersonal context, active listening aims to minimize the effect of our biases and to practice mindful patience whilst bypassing our own agenda,” writes organizational change expert Birgit Ohlin. There are several specific actions that leaders can take to become a more empathetic listener, including:

  • Nonverbal involvement,
  • Paying attention to the speaker not your own thoughts,
  • Practicing non-judgment,
  • Tolerating silence,
  • Paraphrasing, and
  • Asking questions.

Most importantly, IT leaders must reassure people of color during these conversations that their perspective matters to the organization and that their feedback will directly influence the fostering of a fair and equitable work environment moving forward.  Additionally, leaders should remember to express gratitude to all participants for their vulnerability and commit to following up regarding next steps in the process.

Create continuous learning opportunities for all

Over the past 40 years, many IT organizations have implemented various forms of continuous improvement, such as LEAN or Six-Sigma, to capture the voice of the customer, proactively implement solutions to meet customer demands, and regularly measure key performance indicators against desired goals.  As a result, their cultures have evolved to embrace a variety of tools and methodologies that promote continuous learning.  As IT leaders embark on this journey, they should commit to applying a similar level of organizational discipline to create ongoing opportunities (e.g., town hall meetings, skip-level meetings, one-on-one discussions, surveys, etc.) to continually listen and learn from all people of color who have been unjustly subjected to systemic racism in the workplace.

Furthermore, leaders must be committed to establishing genuine connections, rooted in mutual respect and trust, with a segment of the employee population that has historically been made to feel ignored and disconnected.  “Learning about individuals’ unique strengths and unique experiences, and showing recognition for these, is what leads employees to feel valued and respected," writes Michael Slepian, Associate Professor of Leadership and Ethics at Columbia Business School. "This is what enables going beyond surface-level inclusion in favor of real, individual-based inclusion.”  Subsequently, IT leaders will be able to collectively apply the various lessons learned from targeted employee engagements to inform and fuel the creation of a fair and equitable work environment for Black talent and all other marginalized groups. 

As John F. Kennedy said, “Leadership and learning are indispensable to each other.”

The next article in this series will cover how IT leaders can effectively apply their newly acquired insights to begin identifying purposeful and sustainable organizational changes that will help nurture the development of an equal, equitable and just workplace culture.

Copyright © 2020 IDG Communications, Inc.

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