women discussing workplace inclusivity and diversity in the office

Diversity and inclusion in the work place: how to make a difference in any role

You may understand the importance of a diverse and inclusive workplace but might lack the knowledge and skills to really push for it in your professional life. Here, an expert takes us through her tips for making sure you’re doing everything you can to be an anti-racist ally at work, even if you’re not in a leadership role.

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When the Black Lives Matter movement gained mainstream traction last year after the murder of George Floyd, many people engaged with the importance of being actively anti-racist and committing to being an ally in every part of life. This includes the workplace where pushing for diversity and inclusion is particularly important; a report by Business in the Community showed that Black people held just 1.5% of the 3.7m leadership positions across the UK’s public and private sectors in 2019, compared with 1.4% in 2014.

If you’re not in a leadership position or don’t have hiring power, you might assume that you can’t make much change when it comes to diversity and inclusivity at work. But Charlene Brown - the co-founder and managing director of Howlett Brown, an organisation that helps businesses to promote integrity and inclusion while helping their purpose thrive - explains that this isn’t true.

“You do have a lot more power than you think you do in terms of speaking up,” Charlene says, adding that, as an employee, your company values you and your opinion.

“Inclusion is important because people need to feel like they’re included, they are seen and they belong,” Charlene says of the importance of diversity and inclusion in a professional setting. “An organisation can’t possibly provide the best services it desires to its audience if it doesn’t reflect the society that it serves, or the society we live in more broadly, and how that will change over time.”

Here are Charlene’s tips on ensuring you’re consistent in promoting diversity and inclusion at work, whatever level you might be at. 

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Ask about diversity and inclusion during the interview process

If you’re going to make improving diversity and inclusion a priority within your professional life, it can be very useful to make that clear before you join a company. Charlene, therefore, recommends asking questions about diversity and inclusion during the interview process.

Charlene suggests bringing this up when your potential employers ask you for any questions you might have during an interview, suggesting that you say something along the lines of, “Diversity and inclusion and organisations that are focussed on change really matters to me and it really matters that I’m part of an organisation that does that. Can you tell me about your journey? With regards to D&I, can I ask about some of the things you’re working on right now?”

Charlene says you’ll be able to gauge how much a company values diversity and inclusion based on how confidently, and with how much detail, they answer this question. You can also research the company on sites like Glassdoor and look on the business’s own websites to see if they’ve made any statements or have taken any action with regards to diversity and inclusion. 

Recognise where your organisation is currently at with diversity and inclusion 

Charlene explains that we live in a world with a lot of racial unrest and it’s crucial to understand the pressing issues surrounding this and how your company is (or isn’t) dealing with them.

“People can’t really understand a way forward until they know why we are where we are, and what has led to that,” Charlene says. “And that’s not placing blame - it’s just understanding.”

Once you have a good understanding of the issues your company should be dealing with (and whether they’re dealing with them in an adequate way), you can consider the areas in which you might be able to make a difference.

Think about the nuanced ways racism is affecting your workplace

There are obvious ways in which you might be able to tell how much your company is prioritising diversity and inclusion, like considering how varied the backgrounds of the people you work with are or listening to the language your colleagues use when they talk about marginalised people and the issues that are affecting them. But Charlene explains that there are so many other ways in which your company might be able to improve its diversity and inclusion policies and behaviours.

Charlene uses the example of your company recruiting from set universities, “If those universities are awful from a diversity standpoint, you already know that your hiring is going to lack a diverse pool of candidates.”

Diversity and inclusion need to be considered in every aspect of your work, as racism is unfortunately at the root of so many parts of society. Avoid trying to tick boxes and instead, think analytically about how all of your decisions could prioritise marginalised groups more.

Don’t expect people from marginalised backgrounds to educate you 

People from marginalised groups are often expected to share their trauma and difficult lived experiences to help educate others, Charlene explains, but this can be personally damaging, as it often means you’re asking people to relive their trauma.

Instead, you should try and educate yourself. “Build [your] own literacy and awareness around some of the tensions and issues that are occurring,” Charlene advises, adding that it’s crucial that you’re getting your information from verified sources, like TED talks, trustworthy events led by charities and activists and books from people you know are reliable.

“If you’re a member of a large organisation or a relatively decent size, there are internal employee resource groups,” Charlene adds, recommending that you join these to build your knowledge and take the responsibility off the people you work with from marginalised groups to educate you.

Focus more on understanding issues than defining them     

“It’s not enough to define whether something is racist, homophobic or sexist,” Charlene says. “We have to be able to understand why it’s wrong and the impact it has on a person in terms of how they might show up at work, how they might perform and how they might feel about their colleagues and their teams.”

In this way, you really need to put yourself in other people’s shoes and develop a greater sense of empathy for those around you to ensure your allyship isn’t performative.

Share roles within your own network 

Even if you’re not involved in the hiring process, you can share roles that have become available in your company with wider networks that might allow more people from varied backgrounds to apply. Often certain roles are mostly circulated within privileged groups so it’s important to take steps to try to counteract that.

If you feel safe, call out problematic behaviour consistently      

Confrontation at work can be difficult but Charlene says that it is crucial to call out problematic behaviour every time you encounter it if you feel safe to do so. She explains that there are ways to do so that are healthy for everybody and won’t make the people you’re talking to retreat and feel defensive.

“I think the most important thing to emphasise in all of this is everybody is learning something, everybody will probably get it wrong a few times. But it’s really how you deal with that and how you build on your knowledge to get it right next time that really matters.”

If you are really struggling with confidence when it comes to calling people - or your company as a whole - out, Charlene says that many companies have anonymous messaging portals that you could use to flag inappropriate behaviour and she also suggests bringing these things up in one-to-ones with your manager or over email if you feel more able to do so with confidence in that position.

It’s also important to think about the specific person you’re speaking to, Charlene says, and tailor the way you frame your response or query to them, just as you would in other professional situations. For example, some people respond better when you frame things more positively whereas others need to hear things very straight-up and clearly.

Regularly evaluate your company’s approach to diversity and inclusion 

“You need to recognise that some organisations are ready for change but don’t have a clue on what to do and so there is an element of support and patience that needs to be provided there,” Charlene says. “But there are others that sadly aren’t interested.”

“As an individual, you need to be able to get a read on that and decide - and I don’t mean this to sound harsh - that if this is a place if this doesn’t align with your values, should you be there?”

Diversity and inclusion is not a minor issue that you can shrug off and if you’ve made an effort to try and improve your company’s approach but the company has consistently responded badly, ultimately, you need to take some time to think about if this is a company you can work for knowing this information.

Active bystander statements to learn and use at work

An active bystander is a person who observes unacceptable behaviour and takes a step to stop it or make a difference. Charlene recommends using the following questions and remarks if an employee says something you’re not comfortable with or if you think a conversational opportunity comes up in which you can flag improving diversity in your workplace. 

“These are statements that you can just have in your back pocket, so to speak, that you can say with confidence but aren’t positioned to ignite a bigger issue,” she says.

  • I’m not comfortable with your comment, I may have it wrong. Are you able to explain what you mean so I can better understand?
  • That type of attitude can be harmful to others. Our words have power - we should be cautious of that.
  • Yeah, you’re right, all lives matter. So you must be a huge advocate for Black Lives Matter and stand against hate crimes in Asian communities.
  • I think your suggestion is victim-blaming and I’m not comfortable with it.
  • I’m curious why you think that. Can you explain more? Do you have facts to prove that view?
  • I used to think the same as you but I’ve learnt a lot and think differently now. I’d love for you to take a look at some of the things I’m reading. Can I send them to you and we can have another chat?
  • I know you mean well but your comments are unhelpful and dismissive to people who have felt and experienced those things

You can read more careers and work content at Stylist.co.uk and you can also keep up with Charlene on LinkedIn, for more advice and information on diversity and inclusion in the workplace.

  • Charlene Brown, co-founder and managing director at Howlett Brown

    Charlene Brown diversity and inclusion expert headshot
    How to make your workplace more inclusive and diverse with Charlene Brown

    Charlene Brown is a people intelligence expert and lawyer who helps companies resolve people issues and get to the root cause. She is also a Diversity & Inclusion expert and Chair of the Ethics Committee for the Ivors Academy (professional association for UK songwriters).

Images: Getty and Charlene Brown


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