Why Have We Stopped Talking About Diversity At Work?

I’ll never forget attending a leadership development program at a fancy hotel in the early 1990s. The main topic was diversity. John, my well-dressed, articulate, black peer, came back from the coffee break with tears in his eyes, saying he was standing outside getting some fresh air, when some guy handed him his keys thinking he was the valet.

He looked right at me, and said, “Karin there is no way on God’s earth this will ever happen to you.”

It’s 20 years later. I’ve gotten a lot of fresh air just outside of hotel lobbies.

It hasn’t.

We clearly needed that diversity program. John’s experience was raw and real. Talking about unconscious bias wasn’t comfortable, but I know it shaped my perspective as a leader and as a human being.

Perhaps you remember the “diversity” era.

If I were running LGL in the 1990s, I’m quite sure “diversity” would be all over my website.

I just did a search. “Diversity” is nowhere to be found.

Is diversity handled?

Sure, we have the occasional debate about where our transgender colleague should go to the bathroom, but diversity has stopped being top on our list of people issues.

“Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.” -Martin Luther King, Jr.

Of course, it’s better.  Thank goodness. Many companies turned those strategies into polices. Blatant discrimination is less rampant. Ratios continue to improve. It’s better, no doubt.

At the same time, in Baltimore where I live, the city imploded this year with racial riots over injustice. That can’t be happening on the outside of our businesses without impacting our insides. These issues are touching humans inside all of our organizations.

No one forgets their concern about how black lives matter just because they’re driving to work… and yet sometimes this conversation gets stifled when folks pull into your parking lot.

Am I advocating for a return to the Diversity strategy rhetoric? No. Do I want you to hire me to help you build your diversity strategy? No.

Do I think we need to continue to have real dialogue about diversity, inclusion, and the mess we’re still in as a Nation? Yes. At work? Yes. Even if it’s uncomfortable? Yes, yes. Uncomfortable leads to progress.

“In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.” – Martin Luther King, Jr.

I encourage each one of us to consider how we can best re-open the conversation.

“All progress is precarious, and the solution of one problem brings us face to face with another problem.” -Martin Luther King, Jr.

So here we are. It’s up to us. How will we continue the conversation?

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Posted in Authenticity & Transparency, Communication and tagged , .

Karin Hurt

Karin Hurt, is CEO of Let’s Grow Leaders and a former Verizon Wireless executive. Karin was named on Inc.’s list of 100 Great Leadership Speakers for Your Next Conference, the American Management Association List of 50 Leaders to Watch, and as a Trust Across America Top Thought Leader in Trust. She’s the award-winning author of two books, Winning Well: A Manager’s Guide to Getting Results— Without Losing Your Soul, and Overcoming an Imperfect Boss. She’s regularly featured in business publications including Fast Company, Entrepreneur, and Inc.

16 Comments

  1. Such an important conversation, Karin. Thanks for hitting it head on. So often we are unaware of how much our white privilege protects us from even being aware of all the things that “there is no way on God’s earth, this will ever happen to you.”

  2. Being treated as if you were not visible, being excluded or being purposely overlooked really hurt no matter how many times it occurs to an individual. Can you imagine sitting as a diverse participant around a table where everyone is introduced except you? Even if there is an apology, the hurt is still there. Diversity and inclusion training is important in our society and within our workplaces. “Blatant discrimination is less rampart.” However, unconscious (and conscious) bias is still raging beneath many surfaces. Serious dialogue is needed.

    “In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.” – Martin Luther King, Jr. –

    • Millie, Thanks so much for extending the conversation with your powerful example. You’re so right, an apology can’t possibly erase the pain caused from being unseen.

  3. A very poignant post, Karin! Diversity challenges still exist in organizations and in society. What I think is the most powerful way to begin to address them is through conversations and dialogue. Never stop talking. Never be afraid to share what we each see as right. Just keep the dialogue open.

    Thanks for your beautiful words!

  4. Loved this message, Karin!

    Treating every person with respect and dignity ends the need for a discussion about diversity. As a minority in my field of work, I absolutely hated discussions about diversity and being treated as an anomaly was even worse!

    Many people still equate diversity with affirmative action, which denigrates the very people whom they are ostensibly trying to help. If we are truly equal, then we need to treat each other as such.

    • LaRae, Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts. It’s interesting, I was talking with a very senior female exec in an a truly male dominated field the other day. She shared how much she hates it when people talk about how she’s broken through and made it “as a women.” “Why do they need to add that part?” She said she feels like she has to work extra hard so people won’t think she was promoted for diversity reasons.

  5. It is every where, it may be colour discrimination or based on sects, natives or caste. Only with fully understanding the system and education will close this gap to a great extent. ‘Krunvanthe Vishvamaryaha’ is the ‘Vedic’ verse means make each one a respectable citizen of the world.( a crude translation). We have to come out of mindset.

  6. Thank you Karin for your leadership in this area. It is so important for people of privilege like us to speak out. One of my best friends was mistaken for a waiter at my wedding – by the catering manager no less. Black guy in a tux – must be a waiter. We laughed about it, but it wasn’t funny to either one of us.

    I started working in 2000, the tail end of the diversity era. My memories were not good. I found it a bit condescending. I would much prefer a message that we are all here to do a job, our diverse backgrounds don’t matter AND we all have unconscious bias that sometimes discriminates against women and people of color.

    I suspect that you were a part of much better training programs than I was exposed to in my medium silicon valley employer at the time. Were the 90s programs better than I am giving them credit for?

    All of that being said, Diversity should be an explicit goal of every company, because it is better for the bottom line, and better for employees, customers, and society too.

    • Greg, Thanks so much for sharing your story and your thoughts. I think there were a lot of crummy diversity programs out there. It’s too tough of a subject for a “quick dip.”

  7. When I was with my first company in the 90’s there were diversity committees, workshops and discussions. Thanks for the reminder that just because other committees are now hot, the issues have not disappeared. Here’s to sparking a meaningful dialog in even one org in the hope that it makes a difference.

  8. I highly recommend taking one of the implicit bias tests to see how you and your team scores. It’s usually very eye opening for people:

    https://implicit.harvard.edu/implicit/takeatest.html

    Also, I loved this recent podcast (by Gimlet media, the founder used to be a producer for NPR) about a company’s diversity report and the honest discussion about how “white” they were so far as a small startup company in New York City.

    https://gimletmedia.com/episode/19-diversity-report/

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