Diversity, Inclusion & Belonging: Reimagined
Truly belonging — experiencing equity, diversity and inclusion (EDI) in the workplace — sounds like a basic concept. However, achieving it is neither quick nor easy.
“Everyone has the right to feel like they belong somewhere and can contribute there,” says Caleigh Miller, CPHR Candidate. Based out of Whitehorse, Miller works on HR projects for the Government of Canada through the Free Agents program, most recently developing the first-ever inclusion, diversity, equity and accessibility plan for the Canadian Northern Economic Development Agency for Northern Canada.
“Decisions made need to reflect the interests of a variety of people,” she adds. “For a long time, people have felt they can’t connect with what’s going on, that decisions don’t seem to be made for ‘someone like me.’ But people should be able to understand why decisions are made and see themselves as belonging in an organization.”
“Without diversity and inclusion, people are left out,” Ruth Nakalyowa says. “We shouldn’t be okay with leaving people out, even if it’s not intentional.” Founder and lead consultant at Power of Discourse Consulting, she’s an internationally experienced equity, diversity, and inclusion consultant/practitioner. She also provides support for students of colour and ensures they have access to necessary support systems at the University of Victoria, and is the Learning Lead for Equity, Diversity and Inclusion at Roy Group Leadership.
“We can’t avoid it anymore; we can’t pretend this is not happening. Research shows that we do live in times where people are not getting callbacks for interviews because of their last names, for example. It’s difficult to avoid.”
“We want people to reach their best potential and bring their best selves to work. To create the best experiences for others, they need to be heard, appreciated and valued,” explains Shalyma Cambridge, Director of Equity, Diversity & Inclusion and Senior Consultant at HRx .
“People need to feel included, that they belong, that they have a voice and are empowered to share their ideas, or you’ll never reap the benefits of the diversity that’s present,” she adds. “If people feel excluded or not a part of an organization, they’re not going to stay around for long. It costs a lot if you’re constantly recruiting.”
Beyond Improvements for Individuals
Improvements for individuals can benefit organizations.
“It’s important to have diversity because that’s how you’re innovative, how you actually solve problems,” Cambridge says. “When you have a diversity of perspectives, when you can challenge each other, it raises the bar for how you deal with challenges.
“You’ll also be creating products and solutions that meet the needs of the diverse populations that we work within.”
“Companies are trying to emulate the world we live in; otherwise, there’s going to be a disconnect. It’s important to be connected to the world and how diverse this country is becoming,” Nakalyowa says. “Coming into this with lived experience as a black woman who immigrated to Canada, I see less people who look like me in places where I work. When you look around, if you don’t ask who’s missing, who’s not at the table, who’s not part of this conversation, it can get problematic.
“Stakeholders are demanding that organizations take EDI very seriously, so if you listen to your stakeholders, they’ll be happy, you’ll be able to do your job, and your business will thrive. If the people your business are for ask what your EDI policies are and you don’t have an answer — well, there are so many other choices for them out there.”
In addition, “You’re more likely to avoid mistakes if you have more diverse folks in the room. When someone makes a suggestion from only one viewpoint, more diverse people can say, ‘That’s probably going to cause backlash because it’s offensive in our culture.’”
For example, “It’s so disrespectful to just call an (Indigenous) elder and ask them to do a prayer when you have no prior relationship with them,” Miller says. “We need to educate people to understand how and why things should be done a certain way. Even land acknowledgements are often done because people feel they have to, but they don’t really understand why they’re doing it.”
“In any organization that provides services to the public, a client who goes in there wants to know that they belong and that the services they’re receiving are made for people like them,” Miller adds. “They want to get those services without having to feel they’re a burden on an organization.”
Introducing greater equity, diversity, and inclusion in the workplace can be challenging.
“You’re always going to run into some folks who say, ‘Yes, I can see how this is important for some organizations, but how is it important for our business, for example, making widgets?’ Often people have never had to think about their own privilege or experiences,” Cambridge says.
“Oftentimes when we take the time to reflect on how we did arrive in power or leadership roles, we begin to see how privilege may have played a role in us getting there. You’re not going to have an organization that’s going to meet the needs of the next generation unless there is a greater awareness of equity and fairness, and we become more values based.
“In order for organizations to thrive, to be relevant in the future, they will have to shift their focus so that people have the experience of equity, diversity and inclusiveness in their workplaces.”
“People didn’t see the need for EDI conversations, let alone policy change,” Nakalyowa recalls. “They felt like we were making things up, that the solution was just ‘Work hard, hard work pays off,’ not acknowledging that there were power and privilege at play, as well.”
“When seeking mental health resources, when there’s a police presence, when they need a doctor — people should be able to be safe in those situations and we’ve found that we haven’t been. There are definitely experiences of racialized women being given less care because students have been told they have a higher pain tolerance. It shouldn’t be dangerous just to be yourself.”
“Things have been easy and comfortable for many people, so now when they hear things that make them uncomfortable, they want to stop,” Miller says. “They don’t understand that other people live with that every single day.”
She recalls an interviewer saying to her 20 years ago, “Thank goodness we finally got an Aboriginal person to show up for an interview.” Beyond such obvious negative stereotypes, individuals wonder if they were hired only to check a box rather than for their skills and experience. “Nobody wants to be the token, the only black person, the only person wearing a turban, the only person in a wheelchair.”
Sometimes the organization’s structure isn’t conducive to change, either. “Often front level managers are very focused on work, objectives, budgets and timelines they need to meet, and they have the perspective that HR is there to make things more difficult, more challenging, slower,” Miller adds. “It can be really difficult sometimes for managers to visualize that taking time at the start to improve morale at the workplace, to make job ads more accessible, use more plain language, to maybe hire candidates who bring additional value in their lived experiences — that taking time to respect diversity and inclusion will benefit them.”
The ultimate challenge is to follow through. “If you’re not really creating space where people feel accepted and have opportunities to thrive, it’s just talking,” Nakalyowa says. “Canada is not always a friendly place for everybody. It’s not just about writing on a website that we accept everybody, it’s about making sure that everyone thrives in any given situation.”
Making It Happen
Inclusiveness can begin with small steps — such as ensuring you’re pronouncing someone’s name correctly. “It shows respect and that you’re trying to understand another’s background,” Caleigh Miller says. She puts the pronunciation of her own name in her email signature.
Resources should be made available automatically, so people don’t need to ask for special accommodations. Organizations can find out what the needs are by talking to people and listening to their answers, Miller adds. For example, vaccination passports were originally only going to be digital. But not everyone has a cell phone or understands the technology. “We need to think a lot more about how everyone is better able to access services.”
Another pandemic example is people like her father, who has a hearing impairment, having trouble communicating with people when everyone is wearing a mask or working behind plexiglass. “It makes it really difficult for him to get information and makes him feel like he’s not capable of doing things on his own, when he completely is; it’s just that these different pieces have made things inaccessible.”
Acting proactively to remove such barriers makes it easier for everyone to access resources, she adds. “Ensuring people can read subtitles, that mouths are uncovered, websites are built to be accessible for screen readers, that forms and documents are accessible for different types of software — individuals shouldn’t have to feel that they’re causing extra work for an organization just to access information.” Workplaces can serve needs without being asked by providing access to two monitors, sit/stand workstations, noise-canceling headphones, flexible working hours and more.
We need to ensure we understand what equity really means, Cambridge says. “Do we see everyone as same as me and treat everyone the same? That’s not actually equitable because it doesn’t recognize historical injustices, access to education, generational wealth, the ability to send people to school, or the challenges faced by racial groups, folks with disabilities or different sexuality or gender, for example. We need to ask, ‘When is the inequity a result of people not having had access historically?’ We need to think through that lens of equity.”
Both Cambridge and Nakalyowa offer training and workshops to promote understanding in the workplace in support of equity, diversity and inclusivity, and work with clients to review and develop EDI-supportive policy.
They both perform workplace audits as well. “We ask who’s in your organization, its makeup and how it compares to the community diversity. Who have you actually hired and is that representative of the community you serve?” Cambridge says. “We look at the inclusion for folks of different backgrounds, getting both qualitative and quantitative data. We conduct surveys, focus groups and interviews across an organization, asking individuals how their experiences there may differ based on their background. We want to make sure we’re hearing real stories from people.”
She emphasizes that their completed audits include concrete steps for organizations to follow to improve their situation.
“One of the challenges is that we really have to address power dynamics,” Nakalyowa adds. “Often, leadership is pushing change, and you have people who feel they’re being forced to be there or participate because their manager or HR said so. I definitely avoid playing into power dynamics; I make sure everyone receives the same information.
“You have to make sure everybody feels they’re part of the process. We’ve developed teamwork and dialogue sessions, not just lecturing but giving employees space to talk within their teams about how to integrate EDI into their workplace, their work. A lot of the work has to come from within the organization. We put a lot of work into making sure everybody’s voice is heard.
“Businesses conduct financial audits to make sure they’re not making mistakes and their numbers add up; we have to give that same level of attention and care when it comes to EDI.”
“Leaders and HR professionals have an important role in showing on personal, moral and ethical, as well as business, levels, why it’s important to have EDI, to make sure everyone has the same opportunities. You get there by bringing in people with the answers, committing the resources, and leaders making sure people take the work seriously.”
“You can’t just focus on research; you have to focus on action. Start small, but those actions get bigger and bigger until you see the change in your organization. If you’re afraid to try, that’s problematic.”
“As much as we want to do things really quickly and force cultural change, it’s important to break it down piecemeal into things people can do in their everyday lives — pronouncing names properly, using proper pronouns, asking what you can do to support someone, so they don’t have to come and ask, building that environment so it feels like it’s natural and has been that way forever,” Miller concludes. “People need to understand why things need to change and want to continue doing the change after the initial period is over.”
Cambridge adds, “Avoid thinking that things can change quickly — you may feel like we have to get this done right now, but we need to be intentional about what changes and why, who’s involved, learning at all levels, engaging all stakeholders, identifying champions, ensuring leadership has a role to play, setting up a roadmap that makes sense and considers resources and capacity available, or the change won’t be meaningful. Understand that change takes time, but when it does and is intentional, it can be done well.”
Nancy Painter is an award-winning freelance writer and editor based in Surrey, B.C. and a member of the Canadian Freelance Guild.
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