I was fortunate to have lived in South Africa for a couple of years as part of work. During those years, I met people of different colours and races. The blacks, the whites, the coloured, the Indian Indians, the South African Indians etc… A nation that’s as diverse as it could get. There is a reason South Africa is called the Rainbow Nation. Once the apartheid regime came to an end in the early 1990s, Nelson Mandela and the new rulers of South Africa had an important charter – to make South Africa an equal place for all. It was one of the biggest experiments on building a diverse, equitable and inclusive nation.
Trevor Noah writes in his autobiographical, Born a Crime: Stories from a South African childhood, “Nelson Mandela once said, ‘If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.’ He was so right. When you make the effort to speak someone else’s language, even if it’s just basic phrases here and there, you are saying to them, ‘I understand that you have a culture and identity that exists beyond me. I see you as a human being”
To build a DEI safe workplace, the first step is to appreciate and recognize the person or the group of people as a human being(s). This is where the power of storytelling helps to build a DEI safe workplace.
So how to go about it? The following are the 3 ways an organization can start and build its DEI initiatives.
Employee story groups – a safe place to share
Capture and share employees’ stories beyond the leadership team Authentic and transparent stories from leaders
Employee story groups – a safe place to share
To create a diverse and inclusive workplace, there must be a safe place for people to share and be heard without judgement. This is a place to hear out different perspectives in an engaged and empathetic manner. Personal stories of others can be an opportunity to reflect on ourselves, recognize the conscious biases and be aware of the unconscious biases. This creates a cascading effect that results in behaviour change.
An HBR article shares the following methods to use the power of storytelling to build an inclusive workplace.
- Do a round-robin question in a meeting
- Hold listening sessions
- Host discussion-heavy book clubs
- Schedule storytelling town halls
- Include stories in blogs, videos, celebrations, promotions, and onboarding
- Share survey results that show negative perceptions and harmful treatment
- Have social forums and meetups
- Develop dynamic social media campaigns that share stories
Most of the time, people underestimate what they have gone through or think that their experience is not worthy enough to share. They need to be reassured that the expectation is to share a real story but not something that is dramatic or perfect.
Capture and share employees’ stories beyond the leadership team
Employees get fired up on stories that come from their peers rather than leaders. But most of the time, organizations share leadership talks on DEI instead of employee stories.
Programs like this should also take into consideration of the various aspects like current geographical presence, ethnic and racial aspects, persons with disabilities, the LGBTQ+ community, women in general and any specific groups like single mothers, mental health & wellness etc.
Another important aspect is to set a goal and track progress on critical metrics. It could be on demographics, diversity hiring at every level of the organization, retention and promotion rates of the focus groups, usage of the DEI resources etc. Periodic reporting at employee townhalls will show the commitment of the leadership and be helpful in raising the bar on accountability.
Leadership storytelling to build a DEI workplace
Apple’s CEO Tim Cook came out in open to disclose his sexual identity in 2014. This was the first time a leading CEO was open about being gay. His decision to come out in public was after receiving several letters from children struggling with their sexual orientation. He went on to say, “I’m not saying that I understand the trials and tribulations of every minority group because I don’t. But I do understand for one of the groups. And to the degree that it helps give you a lens on how other people may feel, I think that’s a gift in and of itself.”
Leadership commitment to DEI programs should go beyond approving such initiatives or giving a budget for that. They have a critical role in making sure DEI programs are given the same importance as any other business initiative. They can do that by playing an active role in the events organized by employee groups.
Being part of the employee groups, can help leaders with awareness, create meaningful connections with different interest groups, develop empathy and mutual respect.
Over time, most leaders take on professional identity and somewhere along the way drop their personal identities. Employees look for authenticity, transparency, and the layered character of their leaders to make them relatable. Personal stories of the leaders expose their personal self.
Some of the ways to dig into personal DEI stories could be,
- Think about the time when you had to fit in or feel pressured to conform
- An instance where you discovered your bias and how you overcame it?
- Were there situations that your background/privilege got you a different treatment than someone else?
- Occasions where you saw a bias play out
- Did someone in power help you at the workplace?
When we share stories that show why we believe certain things and why we behave the way we do, we open up and show our value systems. We may not agree on all matters but acknowledging the other human being with compassion and empathy is all we need to drive change.
An organization that is serious in their DEI approach would start to see the following changes in their workforce,
- There will be a sense of warmth and empathy in the way we relate to people and their journey
- People start to be open up to diverse thoughts and become intent listeners
- Be thankful for being open in sharing their personal stories – this shows that one is heard
- Finding ways to improve the safe space for different employee groups
I learnt some valuable lessons on building an equitable and inclusive workplace from my experience in South Africa. I went around 2018, a good 15 yrs since the abolition of the apartheid era. While a lot could have been better, there are changes for good to the section of people who were in disadvantaged position during the apartheid era. If a nation with all the complexities in political, economical and cultural aspects can bring about this change, organisations that are serious can transform with the power of storytelling to build a DEI safe workplace.