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How to Take an Intentional Approach to Inclusive Leadership

Adrienne Shulman

AVP, Business Systems, Cornerstone OnDemand

Living and working in the digital age, with its constant change and new innovations, is both exhilarating and at times frightening. There has never been more opportunity, yet we’re all at risk of being disrupted at any time. At Cornerstone we often say "tomorrow will look nothing like today," but since no one knows what the future will bring, what can individuals and organizations do to ensure that we are not the ones being disrupted? The answer to this question lies in understanding a key difference between the digital age we’re living through and previous industrial revolutions.

The digital age allows you to tap into a world market easier and faster than ever before. It’s how Cornerstone can deliver Talent solutions to 75 million users across over 180 countries. But to take advantage of a global market, you need to understand the world. And there is no better way to do this than by creating and developing diverse and inclusive teams. Diversity and inclusion (D&I) is more important for business than ever: a truly diverse team increases team intelligence, offering different perspectives and skill sets.

Despite these trends, companies have been slow to successfully implement D&I, and inclusion specifically has lagged. One 2020 survey suggests that while 9 in 10 employees described their companies as diverse, 3 in 10 said they didn't feel a sense of inclusion or belonging at work. Even if a company has hired a diverse team, it won’t benefit from increased team intelligence unless employees feel they belong: employees who don’t feel included will keep their ideas and opinions to themselves. Think about every cringe-worthy Super Bowl commercial you’ve seen, and you’ll understand the dangers of people being afraid to share their opinion.

In 2019, I was tapped to lead the D&I initiative within Cornerstone’s tech org. I quickly realized that a true sense of inclusion has to start with the leadership team, because leaders are the ones who drive social norms at companies. Their actions have a trickle-down effect. So I implemented a plan to drive inclusive leadership at Cornerstone—and in the process I learned a great deal about what defines inclusive leadership, how to implement it, and how it can continue to evolve.

What Does an Inclusive Leader Look Like—and Why Do They Matter?

When our CTO asked me to take on this effort to increase D&I in Cornerstone’s tech org, I didn’t get busy creating employee resource groups or mentoring programs targeting minorities. Instead I gave myself six months to achieve one very strategic goal: convince the 20-person tech leadership team that inclusion is integral to our strategic vision for the company. In that time, I acted as a coach and D&I advocate to these leaders, helping them first understand what it means to be an inclusive leader.

Harvard Business Review research suggests that there are six core traits of inclusive leaders:

Visible commitment

Humility

Awareness of bias

Curiosity about others

Cultural intelligence

Effective collaboration

Inclusive leaders pay attention to who's invited to meetings, they don't tolerate disrespect, and they make sure the loudest person in the room is not doing all the talking. And by modeling inclusive practices, they drive social norms at the company.

Think about unconscious bias training at companies today. If employees hear about this training from the HR department, people will look at it like a box to check. But when your CTO or manager says, ’Hey, this is really important. And here are all the benefits we get as an organization, as people,’ it changes people's behavior.

How to Be an Inclusive Leader

Becoming an inclusive leader is a process that starts with the first of HBR’s traits: commitment. If you commit to being an inclusive leader, the rest of the traits will follow.

As a biracial woman with a 20-year career in software engineering, I am all too familiar with the experience of being an "only,": the only woman on a team, in a room, or at a leadership table. This made it easy for me to think I would be more naturally inclusive and able to counteract my biases at work. But then, during a one-on-one meeting, a member of my team called me out. She told me that she felt unappreciated and excluded when I recognized a group of employees for their work and neglected to include her in that recognition—even though she was a major contributor to the project.

It was an important learning moment for me, but also one that wouldn’t have happened had I not committed to building trust. She felt safe to share how she felt and knew I was open to hearing about mistakes I make.

As I was working with my peers on the leadership team, I challenged them to build the same openness and trust with their teams. I asked them to think: When was the last time someone called you out about your bias? When was the last time someone disagreed with you? If no one challenges you, it’s not because you are perfect. Most of the time, employees aren’t going to be forthcoming with tough feedback—as a leader, you have to invite that feedback, listen to the feedback without reacting, and then learn from it and change your behaviors.

Driving Long-Term Inclusive Leadership

Ultimately, I met the goal I set for myself in the first six months—and it had exactly the impact I was hoping for. The leaders prioritized D&I and as a result, employees began raising their hands to participate. The visible commitment demonstrated by leaders gave employees permission to organize and start speaking out. We quickly had 50 volunteers to work on different committees internally to drive ongoing change and advance D&I through all areas of our technology department.

Since then, we’ve seen many examples of inclusive leadership in action, like how our leadership team recently took advantage of remote work to invite more people to the table for our annual cloud summit, where we make decisions about our tech stack. Instead of a small group of people gathered at headquarters, we had 100 people from around the world participate. And it was by far our most successful and insightful summit yet.

Inclusive leadership is, above all, an ongoing journey. You can never put this on auto pilot. You’re always learning. And as we saw with the pandemic, things change all the time; inclusive leadership is about constantly expanding your understanding of people and culture, and consistently adjusting the work environment to ensure everyone has a sense of belonging and contributing fully.

To learn more about inclusive leadership, check out insights from industry experts below. And for even more insights and strategies to build an inclusive culture in the workplace, tune into Season 3 of HR Labs, where we focus each episode on strategies to take D&I from intention to action.

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Workplace Diversity: ’The Era of Colorblindness is Over’

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Workplace Diversity: ’The Era of Colorblindness is Over’

Workplace diversity is a pressing topic among HR pros. It's heavily scrutinized in blogs, at conferences and during training sessions. That attention often focuses on how diversity affects the company — but what about how minorities' experiences affect people personally and professionally? Google employee Erica Baker addressed that question recently on Medium with a first-person account of her experiences as a minority in the tech industry. Here, Dr. Kecia Thomas, a professor of industrial-organizational psychology at the University of Georgia, explains how individual workers' experiences can reverberate throughout an organization: How do the experiences of minority workers affect the entire company? The concerns of under-represented workers often represent the concerns of other workers, as well. The issues that minority workers might experience are not all that different from the experiences of people who were the first generation to go to college in their families, or people who might come from a lower economic class. Attending to diversity actually helps to improve the workforce overall. Some of the challenges for ethnic minority workers, for example, are that they often find themselves as one-of-a-kind in their workplace. I’m talking about high-level professionals, people with graduate degrees and above. There are implicit biases that might hinder their access to informal networks, to mentoring or to professional development opportunities that could subsequently impair their performance and career development. I think there are also experiences that newcomers face in regard to feeling invisible and voiceless. How do these biases affect people in the majority? It’s not a stretch to say that the lack of exposure for many white colleagues can also be a source of anxiety that can inhibit their opportunity for authentic interactions with a new colleague who is different, ethnically or culturally. Any time we have those barriers to communication or to establishing authentic relationships, it’s a potential barrier to our performance and our ability to work together productively. Whose role is it to consider these issues within a company — and to take steps to address them? When it comes to any type of organizational change, it always begins at the top. Leaders have to understand demographic shifts in their labor force, how those shifts might be reflected — and the needs and priorities of their workers. When leaders are committed to a diverse and inclusive workplace, HR is empowered to put in place the strategies that are equally effective across a diversity of workers. There’s also a culture of the organization that has to be addressed to make sure that people are held accountable if they violate non-discrimination and anti-harassment policies. Too often, companies don’t have clear policies, or they're not communicated effectively. And even if they’re communicated effectively, they’re not always followed. We are at a critical point as a nation in regard to how we address diversity. We are seeing a lot of blatant forms of discrimination and violence occur, but we’re also seeing a younger generation that is so multicultural and inclusive. We’re seeing an increasing number of states embrace same-sex marriage. So there’s kind of a tidal wave of issues going on that reflect our differences. We have an opportunity to do this well and see this as a way to promote innovation, creativity and greater collaboration. A lot of the research I’ve done with Vicky Plaut [professor of law and social science at the University of California, Berkeley] suggests that we need to embrace multiculturalism and that the era of colorblindness is over. In fact, colorblindness is a signal to members of ethnic and racial minority groups that they are now vulnerable to discrimination. Photo: Can Stock

Dear ReWorker: Handling Sexual Harassment in the Workplace?

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Dear ReWorker: Handling Sexual Harassment in the Workplace?

Dear ReWorker, We recently had a sexual harassment complaint about an employee. Out of curiosity, I Googled this person and found several websites that list his name and include details about his inappropriate sexual activities and relationships. Aside from the internal complaint of sexual harassment in the workplace, the internet posts bother me very much. The situation certainly does not make the company look good and it tells me a lot about the employee's moral and ethical standards. Can I fire him for the complaint as well as what I found out on the Internet? Sincerely, Tempted to Terminate ___________________________________________________________________________________ Dear Tempted to Terminate, You are making this more difficult than it needs to be. If his offense at work was serious enough for termination, you fire him, regardless of his internet persona. It doesn't matter what he does outside of work or what he posts online—he misbehaved at work and should be punished. Now, this does become more complicated if his offense isn't necessarily fireable. Let's say someone complained that he made one dirty joke. That wouldn't (generally) be enough for a termination. If that's the case, here are a few other questions to consider. Is His Online Behavior Just Icky, or Is It Illegal? This is important because in some states or cities, you can't terminate someone for doing something controversial outside of work if it's legal. So, if you find his behavior objectionable but happen to live in one of these jurisdictions, you can't terminate him for that behavior. If you live outside these areas, employees don't have the right to do icky things and brag about them on the internet, even if it's outside of the workplace. There's no free speech in the workplace, and as long as his questionable behavior didn't include him starting a union, you can terminate him for outside activities. Are You Discriminating Based on Gender or Sexual Orientation? If a woman were saying the same things online as the employee in question, would you be okay with it? If your answer is yes, then you're discriminating illegally. If he were a different sexual orientation, would you be okay with it? If so, then you need to be extra cautious. The courts have reached mixed verdicts on whether you can legally discriminate against someone based on sexual orientation, but the reality is, even if your bias falls within the law, you shouldn't act on it. You should be judging people based on their work. Does the Behavior Reflect Badly on the Company? Assuming that his behavior at work wasn't serious enough for a termination, and assuming that it's not illegal to terminate him, should you still do it? Generally, managers should stay out of their employees' online lives. You wouldn't invite yourself over to dinner at their house, so why should you invite yourself onto their Facebook pages? With that said, you should take action if the employee's behavior reflects badly on the company. If there's nothing online linking him to your company, you should probably let it go. If it's easy to link him to your company, however, that's another story. Regardless of your decision you need to do two things: consult with your employment attorney and enforce the same standard across the board, regardless of age, gender, position or tenure. Your ReWorker, Suzanne Lucas, Evil HR Lady Photo: Creative Commons

Why Starbucks' Unconscious Bias Training Probably Won't Change Much

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Why Starbucks' Unconscious Bias Training Probably Won't Change Much

Starbucks made a splash recently by closing 8,000 stores to provide unconscious bias training for over 100,000 employees. The company decided on this widespread training after an employee stopped two black men from using their onsite restroom in a Philadelphia store. As a former Chief Learning Officer at multiple organizations, I don't think this training will change much. And, as a consultant, I can also guess what this training may have cost Starbucks. So why pay for something that likely won't stop this situation from happening in the future? The short answer is because it is easier to "train" people for a half day than to do the challenging work of creating an infrastructure of leadership and a culture of diversity and acceptance. The first of Starbucks' three stated values is "Creating a culture of warmth and belonging, where everyone is welcome." Sounds easy. After all, we all want to be welcoming to everyone, right? In practice, however, it's not that simple. As humans, we bring complexity, variability, and, sometimes, bias to the table whether we realize it or not, and four hours of training alone won't change that. To drive real change, organizations need leaders who understand their role in shaping behaviors, and it's up to these leaders to teach employees how to best represent the image of the organization in their work. Here are four practical ways leaders can shape culture and behavior on their teams: Don't Hide Behind the Scenes If you're a leader, your office is a great place to hole up and get work done, but that's not where the real leadership happens. The real work of an organization takes place where employees work—in front of customers, with the products. Being a leader means regularly listening, observing and, when appropriate, immediately intervening to acknowledge behavior that is exceptional, or reprimand behavior that must change. Make it part of your routine to be present and active, side-by-side with employees. Be Aware of the Situation Your presence alone isn't enough. Leaders must view the workplace and their employees through a critical lens—the values of the organization. That means being open to noticing, as in Starbucks' case, when that culture of belonging and warmth is violated. Using a values filter may not be second nature, particularly because this type of leadership is a time-consuming and all-encompassing work. It's critical for leaders to see beyond their point of view, embrace the organization's values and coach them, thereby shaping behaviors that represent the values. Match Worker Demographics to Customer Demographics Organizations are increasingly making an effort to hire a more diverse workforce, and there's a valid business reason for that—employees who share the culture and background of the customer base will be better able to meet the customer needs because they're more likely to have similar needs. An employee demographic that represents the customer demographic can also help ensure that products fit the culture of the local presence. Find Teachable Moments Leaders sometimes view coaching and feedback as something that's provided to employees only when they're doing something wrong. As a result, they are uncomfortable providing feedback regularly because they think it sends the wrong message to workers. But by adopting a teaching mentality, leaders can view feedback as a good thing—a learning or developmental opportunity rather than a corrective one. A mindset of continuous learning goes a long way for opening up a meaningful dialogue. Leaders who understand that shaping their culture is an ongoing process, and approach it from a long-term learning and engagement lens can generate excitement about their organization's value. And that excitement typically lasts a whole lot longer and is much more effective than a four hour training session. Photo: Unsplash

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