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Diversity, Equity and Inclusion – a few do’s and don’ts, not only for leaders

About the author

Agnieszka Jarecka
HR Operations Director
Agnieszka joined Aon in 2016 as HR Operations Director. Throughout her career she held several experts and managerial positions in accounting, audit, consulting, sales support, and human resources. She spends most of her free time travelling and hiking across the world with her husband and 2 sons.

Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) topics have been discussed everywhere over recent weeks. And, no doubt, for good reasons. I have read several articles and official communication distributed internally and externally about the topic and, frankly, there are some good practices that I would recommend following, and multiple examples to watch out for if you wish to remain a trusted leader. DEI is a very important and ultra-sensitive topic, so it is easy to step into turbulent waters. As I shared in my recent post, you, as a manager, are living in a fishbowl, so your words are always confronted with your actions. Be mindful of typical traps you can fall into:

Don't play a politician, be concrete and personal. The first trap you can fall into is stating the obvious, talking slogans, and declaring general statements without being specific about tangible actions to take. If you are not detailed, your words are simply meaningless and are treated as corporate branding.

One of the best examples I have come across recently was an e-mail from one of our top leaders who shared his own experience as a person of color in the US and the support he received from his American friends. Such personal stories, real cases, make the biggest impact on promoting DEI, because many of us can relate to them and connect them with our own experience. Corporate High – level communication can land in e-mail spam unread if the recipient does not feel it to be real.

One more call out – we tend to focus on hot topics that drive everyone's attention such as racism and sexual orientation while forgetting about all other types of diversity, such as the inclusion of working parents, people with disabilities, diversity of cultures, languages, and thoughts. Truly inclusive leaders create an environment that supports all the needs of the team, not just some.

Don't play a prosecutor to improve your own image, showcase who you are instead. When you point out and publicly criticize bad practices, you distance yourself from them and effectively present yourself in a good light. However, if you need to claim it publicly, I am becoming a bit suspicious… Paraphrasing Margaret Thatcher’s statement: if you need to tell others that you are a real lady or a real gentleman, there must be something wrong about that. It should be clearly visible by your manners and your behavior. So, I wouldn't just declare I do not support such practices; instead, I would show the actual policies and procedures within your organization or your team that would prove it.

DEI is an approach, a consistent series of practices, not a one-off event or a promotional campaign. I have been lucky to work for companies where DEI has been a part of their DNA – visible, and tangible, embedded into all people processes, from employer branding, recruitment, internal transfers and promotions to performance evaluation and talent management. However, a company can set a framework, but it takes an individual to live it, follow it, take it into account in his or her decisions every day. If this is a pattern, a common trait in your behaviour as a leader, there is no doubt who you are.

Fight like a knight if you see any sign of discrimination, but don’t escalate the conflict. It takes real courage to stand out and respond to discriminating practices on the spot in your daily life. You - against someone making improper jokes while everyone else is laughing, or you - against a stranger or a neighbor on a street showing disrespect to others, not even mentioning violence, or you – against a colleague or a family member making derogatory comments. The closer the relationship, the harder the fight, especially if we do not want to spoil our relationship. Patronizing “you should…”, “you must not...” can only fuel the fire.

So how to be effective, but not offensive, how to fight like a real knight? You can try to confront high level statements with real life examples from your experience. For example, when someone is sharing stereotypical views on availability and effectiveness of working mothers, you can say: “You must have been very unlucky to come to such conclusions, I have 3 working mothers in my team and I can trust them 100%. They are so well organized and reliable, definitely the best performers in our department”. You can also use humour and share a few stereotypes about yourself to lighten the atmosphere, and then comment, “jokes aside, I don’t think you mean that …. If you knew any of my friends, you wouldn’t say so”. By showing respect for diverse opinions and treating the others as partners, you are more likely to be listened to and start talking together, not arguing with each other. Once you are on common ground you can define rules and borders recognizing the differences, while valuing diversity.

Don't play a living saint…you are guilty too. It is hard to admit, but we all are limited by our subconscious biases and stereotypes. As a leader, you must be self-aware that your decisions are likely to be skewed and unfair. Why are you selecting or not selecting a particular candidate? Are you excluding a working mother or a disabled colleague, or a different nationality or colour? Are you preferring a candidate who graduated from the same university or has a similar working experience? Watch your “intuition”, “first impression” and “kindred soul” driven decisions. Unless you discover your biases and consistently remind yourself about them, you will effectively promote exclusion and inequality.

In short, focus on things you can control – fewer statements, more actions, acting as a role model to promote an inclusive culture you would like to live and work in.

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