Jobs and the Future of Work

We can build an inclusive workplace, and it starts with empathy

Image: Sarah Pflug/Burst

Simon Freakley
Chief Executive Officer, AlixPartners
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“Genius draws no color lines.”

In 1939 US Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes said those words as he welcomed renowned contralto Marian Anderson to the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. Her performance was profound: Anderson stepped onto the stage after having been prevented from singing at Constitution Hall, a venue which allowed white performers only. Still, her genius moved thousands that day; to watch the performance now sends a chill down my spine.

The story of Anderson’s performance and Ickes’s words embody something I think about often, not only as an opera enthusiast, but also as a human and a father – and as a CEO in an industry that continues to struggle with diversity.

As businesspeople, we know that when we can bring to the table a wide spectrum of backgrounds, perspectives, and thoughts, our work benefits. But as we move to fill the talent pipeline with colleagues who represent a variety of cultures, genders, religions, and sexual orientations, there is still more each of us can do.

I am reminded of another quote: “Diversity is a reality; inclusion is a choice,” attributed to Stephen Frost, author of The Inclusion Imperative: How Real Inclusion Creates Better Business and Builds Better Societies.

What I believe Frost is saying is that every minute of every day, each of us can make the decision to be inclusive. It is an action each of us can take to ensure the people around us feel seen, accepted, and valued.

Of course, it is not always simple. I remember a time early in my career when I was visiting South Africa and invited an extremely smart and successful friend out to dinner. She had grown up during apartheid, and she was of Indian descent. I chose a restaurant popular among the business crowd and was shocked when she explained that the environment would not be welcoming to her, and therefore she would not be comfortable meeting there for a meal.

I felt terrible for my oversight, and I was grateful for her compassion in recognizing the good intentions behind my invitation. But I learned an important lesson that day: It is not enough to focus on what you think is appropriate; to truly be inclusive, you must put yourself in someone else’s shoes and honestly consider their feelings. It is the argument for replacing the Golden Rule (“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”) with the Platinum Rule (“Do unto others as they would want done to them”).

A recently published study by Harvard Business Review sheds light on this disconnect. More than 16,000 employees in 14 countries were surveyed about diversity and inclusion in the workplace, and the findings were telling. From the report: “Half of all diverse employees stated that they see bias as part of their day-to-day work experience. … By contrast, white heterosexual males, who tend to dominate the leadership ranks, were 13 percentage points more likely to say that the day-to-day experience and major decisions are free of bias.”

How then do we begin to solve this problem and foster a more inclusive environment? Empathy needs to become the guiding principle. At the same time, we must recognize that we all have unconscious biases, and we must be brave enough to confront them within ourselves.

For me, this is especially noticeable when traveling with my children, who are black. The interactions we encounter often vary. Much like my attempt at dinner in South Africa, these experiences have opened my eyes in ways which I may never have seen otherwise. It begs me to wonder what else I am missing.

But maybe that is the journey we are all on. We have come a long way since 1939. We have further to go.

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