‘Diversity is being invited to the party; inclusion is being asked to dance’
So, imagine being at a party but no one’s talking to you; no one offers you a drink, much less nods towards the dance floor. That feels pretty rubbish, right? Now if this is the situation five days a week, 48 weeks a year and you’re already stressed – working long hours, tired and perhaps have a health condition – imagine the cumulative impact on your health and performance.
We all, at one point in our lives, have been faced with the thought that we don’t belong, are not wanted or don’t know how to navigate new spaces. This has been my personal experience; this was my childhood for the most part. I was the only black teenager in my high school for 3 years until my brother joined. Asides enduring all kinds of questions about things I knew nothing about – topics like hair growth and volume, the geography of Africa, and the history of my ancestors. That I was already 6 feet tall by the time I was 17 did nothing for my quest to blend in. For my tertiary studies, I went to an institution that was primarily Caucasian; and my first job in the real world – not only was I one of the 3 black professionals in an office of 80 people, I was also in the minority when it came to my gender. So, it is safe to say there was no escaping it.
Many of the professionals I have come across – particularly those from BAME background – don’t feel they can be their authentic selves at work despite spending the majority of their time there. Isolation is a familiar feeling experienced by everyone irrespective of their sensitive characteristics (gender, race, colour, disability); and research shows that BAME workers experience behaviours which foster a sense of isolation or a feeling of not being wanted. How then can we work together to create an environment that promotes a sense of belonging, one where people can be their authentic selves – knowing that they are valued for who they are and what they do?
Whose responsibility is it?
I believe that putting employees first is key to building an inclusive culture in the workplace; and frankly speaking, everyone has a role to play in this process. I would like to compare this to the function of a thermostat and thermometer. The thermometer simply tells you the temperature of a place; the thermostat, however, identifies the temperature and can change the temperature to make it warmer and welcoming for all. You can choose to accept or contribute to making your workplace an inclusive one.
Is it vital? Can’t I just do my work and go home?
Yes, it is absolutely necessary! If you only work one day a week, you may or may not feel the impact of your work environment on your productivity. However, in reference to the example above, a lack of inclusivity can have a compounding effect on your health and well being, which will impact on your performance and productivity over time.
‘Your brain at positive is 31% more productive than your brain at negative, neutral or stressed’
– Shawn Achor
But where do you start?
Firstly, we need to understand that inclusion in the workplace comprises three factors, namely organisational culture, physical design and behaviours. When talking about racial diversity and inclusion, it refers to culture and ethics. It is important to note here that an organisations culture is mainly developed by the people who make up the company. It is also mostly driven by the leaders within the organisation. To ensure we develop a workplace culture where everyone feels valued and welcome, I would like to suggest the following:
- Know yourself and be comfortable with who you are; even the parts of yourself that you don’t like.
- Acknowledge that we are all different, and capitalise on the vast amount of experience, life skills, technical ability and perspectives each person brings.
- Be aware of your bias (unconscious bias towards people who are different to yourself and affinity bias towards people who look like you).
- Remember that everyone has value, something to contribute; so be open to learning from each other and treat others how you would like to be treated.
- Seek to understand your company’s current strategy to diversity and inclusion, and familiarise yourself with available support systems.
- Challenge poor behaviour and be an ally to those who are being mistreated for whatever reason. Lend a listening ear where necessary and report issues to the right team.
- Join an Employee Resource Group (ERG; more about this below).
Currently, I sit on the board of my organisation’s BAME employee network, and this allows me the opportunity to weigh in on matters that affect our members and to develop initiatives geared toward the personal and professional development of BAME professionals. It provides resources to support BAME professionals and those seeking to understand BAME professionals and their culture in a safe and organised manner.
I first found out about ERGs when I joined my present company 3 years ago. ERGs contribute to a more open, inclusive and diverse organisation by helping us understand our differences and similarities, and improve communication around the business. They are employee-led, work with the broader diversity and inclusion and HR functions to provide support to individuals and teams, and offer fresh opportunities for networking across the organisation. ERGs are not just for people with unique characteristics (race, gender, disability etc.); they foster allyship – building empathy in team members and allowing them to better understand the challenges faced by different groups. Since joining an employee resource group, I have felt more supported and confident about my identity and capabilities. Lastly, the ERG has helped expand my perception of others and of myself. If you would like to find out more about ERGs, see the links provided below.
 Black, Asian and minority ethnic
Have you ever been discriminated against? How did you handle it – please share with us in the comments.
*All posts on Naomi’s Parlour are edited by Ife Agboola