An Open Letter To Managers Who Want To Be More Inclusive

I have a Google alert for “diversity hiring”; I got the suggestion of Google alerts from one of my first Managers. The results have been hilarious and sad all at the same time. Twitter received a firestorm for its VP of Diversity hiring announcement last year. My alma mater, Yale, committed $50M to faculty diversity a few months ago – and then left a residence named after one of the United States’ most vocal proponents of slavery. One writer detailed the “autopsy” of her attempt to explain workplace diversity in an interview (irony of talking about hiring during an interview duly noted).

Companies talk so much about diversity and inclusion. Academics talk about diversity and inclusion. I was even asked to speak about diversity and inclusion on mixed academic-corporate panel – they wanted “millennial voices” present. I give them credit for taking the first step since, after all, millennials have a very different view of diversity than their Gen X/Y counterparts, and millennials will be themajority of the workforce in less than 10 years.

But hearing all this talk and reading all these (sometimes funny, sometimes depressing) headlines, all I could think was: “I feel for the Managers who have to implement all these corporate ‘diversity policies’ and deal with the blowback”.

Now, this is not one of those articles about “the 5 simple steps to be more inclusive” (Ciara Trinidad wrote a great piece about how stupid those articles can be).

But, Managers, I feel for you. You are reading all those headlines, taking part in those panels, and really, really trying. So I’m going to do my best to level with you and tell you what I wish my previous Manager(s) had known about “inclusion”:

 

Inclusion is About Understanding:

If I tell you, my manager, about my boyfriend, are you going to start viewing me either as your “’cool’ gay employee”, or worse, your “giiirlfriend” (I’ve had both happen to me)? Are you going to divert every conversation to how you attended a Pride parade once and your other friend is gay, too?

Understanding is about being ok with not knowing everything immediately (instead, knowing some of the structure and learning the content as time goes on). When I say understanding, I mean that you care about me. Human to human. You might not know me yet (or my identity, or what that means), but that doesn’t preclude you from being able to sit back and realize that something is important to me when I bring it up.

Using that boyfriend example again: you may not fully “get” a relationship that, on the surface, is so different than yours – yet! Learning is an ongoing experience. But I’d be willing to bet you understand what it’s like to have a close relationship or feel for a significant other. You know what kinds of questions to ask depending on social context – when did you meet? What did you get up to on the weekend? Those questions don’t have a gender automatically attached.

Now, to those managers who might have talked about their other gay friends or jokingly call me “giiirlfriend”: It’s ok. I know you were trying to find a way to relate to me. But relying on outdated stereotypes can be really damaging – the same way that I shouldn’t assume you have no idea what a smartphone is and can’t use “the Facebook” just because you came of age before these products came out (no pun intended).

 

Inclusion is About Honesty:

For all that talk about understanding… sometimes you won’t quite get it fully. And that’s ok. Admit it, ask the “stupid” question with sincerity, and learn from it. I won’t be hurt or offended if you ask the questions you need to with sincerity, and I certainly won’t think you’re less intelligent for asking.

Honesty is about taking responsibility. If you need to ask one of those “stupid” questions, then go ahead and ask, but don’t rely on me (or someone else that shares a given identity with me) for every single little piece of knowledge you need. Just as you would not want me to be running to you with every question – I’m fully capable of Googling how to write that Excel formula or figuring out what that Wall Street Journal article said – you can figure out a few things on your own.

But honesty is also about knowing, and admitting, what you don’t know. Too often, Senior Executives make public statements about the importance of diversity and inclusion (and they have gone through all the retreats, keynote speeches, and private follow up sessions to learn about why). But it’s the Managers who have to implement the policies and all you got was a 2-hour distilled talk on “diversity”. It’s really, really not your fault that you don’t know all the nuances; just don’t feel that you need to come off as an expert.

 

Inclusion is About Trust:

This is a big one. You have to trust that I know what I’m doing and that I know what I need. You also have to trust that I’m not going to take advantage of your good nature. This is really tough, particularly with all those articles you see calling millennials lazy and entitled, but it is the glue that holds understanding and honesty together to create true inclusion.

Inclusion requires trust because otherwise these often tenuous subjects produce anger and resentment – trust is the antidote.

Trust is about being vulnerable. It’s about starting that human connection with understanding, bolstering it with honesty, and sealing it with trust. And here’s the thing: it has to come from you first because you (and the organization) have the power. You’re higher up than me, you have more seniority, and you have the power to promote or fire me.

I can’t be the best employee possible without your trust. It’s incredibly difficult to be the best employee when not given a computer, to use a far-out example, because the company does not trust me to keep it safe and secure. Similarly with identity inclusion, it’s incredibly difficult for me to be my best at work when you don’t trust that I can attend Pride events and still do my job.

 

Coming together:

Being inclusive isn’t just about attending the right amount of “diversity” training. It isn’t just about being on panels and having meetings with senior executives to “talk strategy”. And it certainly isn’t just about waving a pride flag in June every year (Note: These all help, though).

 

It’s about knowing your employees as humans. Understand their identities and embrace their different perspectives on life (and work). Be honest about what you do and don’t know about any specific details of identity or background (and learn!). And then trust those employees to be amazing workers, made better because they understand their Manager, are able to be honest with them, and trust that the Manager is offering them the same courtesy.

 

Follow Stefan on Twitter @stefanpalios

Article originally appeared on Huffington Post

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