Beyond the training: How to host meaningful DE&I conversations at your company

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6 mins, 6 secs read time

It has recently become clear that one-time workplace anti-bias training sessions aren’t nearly enough to improve workplace diversity, equity and inclusion (DE&I). Neither the airing out of equity issues in a single “town hall” nor the mere hiring of a lone diversity professional magically create lasting change. If companies want to be great places to work and attract exceptional talent, they need to systematically address their own biases, open up a transparent dialogue and commit to rigorous anti-racism institutionalization.

Opening up the discussion

Leaders are now met with the challenge of addressing topics that may have previously been thought of as “too political” for the workplace. Today, it’s widely known that speaking up is an opportunity to support your employees, live the company values and passively recruit the thought leaders of tomorrow. These conversations are not about politics – we’re talking about basic humanity. And something that so deeply affects the wellbeing of your employees most certainly deserves a central place next to your business imperatives. Employees can’t be expected to simply leave these issues outside when they walk through the virtual office doors.

At Greenhouse, we recently hosted Virtual Realities, a series of small-group employee-led conversations meant to explore the effects of today’s current affairs, including police brutality, COVID-19’s impact on communities of color and productivity and mental health during the lockdown.

After completing these sessions, we learned from our company survey that 100% of participants felt the discussions were either very or incredibly inclusive, and 90% of participants felt comfortable continuing conversations with their colleagues, friends and family. After seeing the positive impact this initiative had at Greenhouse, we wanted to share our learnings and experiences with our community as guidance for having similar conversations at your company.

Tips for meaningful conversations

Assess your company’s general education level

Not everyone is on the same page – even at the most forward thinking companies. Make sure there’s a general baseline in education about DE&I (what it is and why it’s important) before diving into nuanced topics. It is also a prerequisite that everyone involved feels safe enough to be vulnerable. You can enhance that safety with a basic framing of the issues to be covered, some resources to review ahead of time and a commitment to education throughout. Rarely are these discussions easy and they are often uncomfortable, but that is even more reason to set expectations and define communication norms.

Focus on relevant topics

At Greenhouse, we focused on three topics: police brutality, the pandemic’s impact on communities of color and mental health during quarantine. They were decided based upon a company survey and general discussions we saw gaining momentum both internally and externally. We wanted to make sure that we addressed issues that affected our employees both inside and outside of the workplace. Grounding our topics in the reality of the moment felt like the best way to support our people, and help them express their true authentic selves at work.

Create the time and space and shout it out

Advertise your discussion sessions liberally on all channels – email, Slack, team meetings and All Hands meetings. Make sure to get executive buy-in early and have them vocalize support internally. Then, be sure that they attend as well. The example that sets can’t be overstated.

Having an executive open up in such a space is affirming for employees on many levels and helps create the kind of culture most companies aspire to.

Although no conversation is perfect, it’s the awkwardness, discomfort and honesty that build trust over time.

Form a trusted team to lead discussions

You can always show a commitment to making a difference, even if you don’t have the funds for expensive third-party facilitation or a certified expert on staff to take the helm at your organization. You might turn to knowledgeable employees, but be sure not to tokenize here. Allow those with a natural interest in the topics to raise their hands and volunteer. It was vital for us to create smaller breakout group discussions with a facilitator present so that there was a real opportunity for participation. Facilitators reinforced ground rules, kept the conversation on track and provided space for difficult emotions.

Set some ground rules and conversation norms

Those ground rules can’t be overlooked. Not stating them fully and thoughtfully can easily open the door to frustration and further erode trust. At Greenhouse, we held to some of the following guiding principles:

  • Stay confidential (the space is safe because it is protected)
  • Hold space (listen actively and stay mentally engaged)
  • Get comfortable with being uncomfortable
  • Be encouraged to participate (you get out of this what you put into it)
  • Allow yourself to be vulnerable (share at the level you feel comfortable with)
  • Agree to disagree (do not be afraid to respectfully challenge one another by asking questions, but refrain from personal attacks and focus on ideas)
  • Use “I” Statements (own your unique experiences and refrain from speaking in generalizations)
  • Be conscious of body language and non-verbal responses (be mindful of this for yourself and others)

Commit to improvement

Send surveys to understand the impact of your program. For example, we learned that 47% of our attendees thought that the conversations were too short. This is an easy adjustment for the future. It’s also crucial to read all the comments and have a qualitative understanding of the experiences as well. I want to leave you with a taste of some of the pointed feedback that will inform and shape our methodology moving forward.

This is a marathon, not a sprint. There is a lot to process and work on and I need to commit to doing as much as possible, but also build it into my daily behaviors to ensure I'm not burning out or losing steam if some of the national momentum fades. This is about impacting real, long-term change.

“I think momentum needs to be sustained! I already sense in my personal network the ‘normalizing’ of people's daily attention. If we can operationalize sessions like these such that we have an ongoing conversation and people know they have a regular space, I think that'd be valuable.”

“Written reflection time for a takeaway and a mechanism to hold ourselves accountable.”

“I appreciate the conversation I participated in. It was valuable, more than a good use of my time and thought-provoking. This provided a safe space to talk about some hard realities with a diverse group of colleagues outside my normal social circle. It is important to me that our workplace continues to not only make room for these conversations, but to make these direct discussions about inequality (and what we're doing to impact change) a central aspect of who we are as a company. These are not political issues. These are human rights issues.”

This work is admittedly difficult and draining, but the possibility for reward is high and worth the effort. A more empathetic and conscientious work environment, an engaged and aware executive team and tangible professional development for those involved are just a few of the many benefits we have seen at Greenhouse. Take the first step!

At Greenhouse, we believe that when people are heard, their voices can make a difference – and when people feel included, they bring their whole selves to their work. Learn more about our mission here.

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