Diversity and Inclusion at Work in Today’s Political Landscape

Diversity & Inclusion at Work Political Landscape
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Patti Perez and Prof. Alvin Tillery recently presented at How Women Lead’s two night event, Unraveling Unconscious Bias. Patti sat down with Prof. Tillery for a chat about political discussions in the workplace, and gained some insight into how diversity and inclusion initiatives in the private sector can interact with today’s political arena. Prof. Tillery is the Director of the Center for the Study of Diversity and Democracy at Northwestern University.

Patti: Tell me more about your suggestion for organizations to have a diversity CREED: Common Purpose, Research, Equanimity, Empathy, and Deliverables.

Prof. Tillery: I developed the CREED Model based on 20 years of research focused on leaders who were effective at promoting significant changes around diversity, equity, and inclusion (DE&I) issues. What I came to realize is that almost all successful leaders in the diversity and inclusion space based their efforts on these five key pillars. What’s great about the model is that it provides leaders with a holistic approach to pursuing their diversity, equity, and inclusion goals.

Patti: What is your most important advice to companies grappling with the realities that what goes on outside of the office – including political realities – affects how people feel and the views they bring to the workplace?

Prof. Tillery: My advice to companies on this score is to recognize that it is impossible to wall off their workplaces from the realities that shape the lives of their workers on a daily basis. We have made a lot of progress over the past few decades acknowledging that workers have a range of familial, wellness, and educational needs. There is no doubt that our incredibly polarized times are putting workers under stress, and that they are likely bringing these stresses to work on a daily basis. The best workplaces will try to find ways to meet these realities by building cultures that tolerate these differences and encourage respectful dialogue.

Patti: What are some of the learning lessons from your research on democracy and diversity that have a direct translation into diversity efforts within organizations?

Prof. Tillery: Well, the CREED Model and my belief that you can’t wall off businesses from the sociopolitical world are direct lessons. The reality is that the only reason we have diversity efforts in the corporate and non-profit sectors is because the civil rights revolution of the 1960s reformed our democracy and made them possible. I think that remembering this historical foundation is a very powerful heuristic for diversity and inclusion work within organizations. Studying the relationship between diversity and democracy also teaches us that maintaining positive gains in the diversity and inclusion space requires vigilance.

Patti: Your research focuses not only on diversity based on characteristics like race, gender, sexual orientation, etc., but also on socioeconomic status. Does that research have relevance to Diversity and inclusion efforts at corporations?

Prof. Tillery: The consensus within the social sciences is that marginalized identities and socioeconomic status have been mutually constitutive throughout most of American history. Consider, for example, the ways that the racial segregation laws that governed life in the United States between 1876 and 1968 limited the educational and economic opportunities available to African Americans. One of the main points of these laws was to create a monopoly of economic opportunities for the dominant group. These laws worked very well, and 52 years after they were invalidated, communities of color continue to carry economic burdens that are direct legacies of this unjust monopoly. If you run a corporation, and you are ignoring the socioeconomic legacies of these laws, your diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts will be less impactful than if you deal with these realities head on. While gender and LGBT+ identities have not been shaped by the same level of formal exclusion as communities of color, our research tells us that their marginal statuses also generate economic barriers. My advice is that corporations should be just as attentive to these social realities.

Patti: You and I talked about organizations that are committed to Diversity and Inclusion but who might think that simply taking certain steps will solve issues. Two specific issues we discussed were: 1) going beyond the kick-off event, then what? and 2) understanding that having a commitment and taking steps to diversify and create an inclusive culture doesn’t mean folks won’t still see some unfairness (and in the worst case, sue your company), how do you not let that reality discourage you?

Prof. Tillery: My view is that diversity, equity, and inclusion work should be normalized to be just like other business functions. In other words, corporate leaders need to see this work as just another part of their regular leadership portfolios, not “special” or “feel good” projects. When you normalize diversity and inclusion work, you are in a much better position to deal with the highs and the lows that come from doing work in this domain. Just as there are no perfect ways to pursue profits or to promote sustainability within an organization, there are no perfect solutions in the diversity and inclusion space. Corporate leaders must learn how to be resilient in the face of these setbacks. Can you imagine what would happen if a corporate leader said: Well, we didn’t make our profit projections for this quarter, let’s just forget about this whole making money thing? That would never happen! Normalizing diversity, equity, and inclusion functions means that corporate leaders adopt the same attitude that they have toward profits and apply it to making their organizations more diverse, more equitable, and more inclusive.

Patti: We have a big election coming up and things are already getting heated. What are some of your predictions for what 2020 will bring in terms of democracy and diversity? What are some of your recommendations to deal with the issues that are sure to arise ahead of and during the election?

Prof. Tillery: Regardless of the outcome of the 2020 election, we are at a critical phase in the health of our democracy. No matter who wins and what policies they pursue, the United States will be a majority-minority nation by 2040. Moreover, public opinion polls show us that most Americans—particularly those in the Millennial and Gen Z cohorts—are more open to these changes than politicians understand. My advice for corporate leaders trying to respond to the 2020 cycle is to determine your values around diversity and inclusion issues and articulate them to your workers. Companies that are not afraid to embrace change and help to promote tolerance will undoubtedly be rewarded by the workers and consumers who comprise the rising generations.

About Alvin Tillery:

Alvin B. Tillery, Jr. is Director of the Center for the Study of Diversity and Democracy and associate professor of political science at Northwestern University. He earned his Ph.D. in political science from Harvard University in 2001. His research focuses on leveraging leadership and communication to build and expand the capacity of diverse organizations and social movements. Tillery is a frequent commentator in the national media on diversity issues and presidential leadership. He is also the principal of Analytic Insights Diversity and Leadership Consulting, LLC.

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