Creating an Inclusive, Diverse, Equitable and Anti-racist Workplace

Benjamin Franklin was an author, scientist, inventor, diplomat, and politician. He said many things. In fact, hundreds of quotes have been attributed and misattributed to him. Perhaps his most famous was “In this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.” Meaning that one cannot avoid the inevitable, and certain things in life are common to all people and cannot be avoided. 

One of those inevitable things is change. And Franklin had a quote for that too: “Change is the only constant in life. One’s ability to adapt to those changes will determine your success in life.”

In creating inclusive, diverse, equitable and anti-racist (IDEA) workplaces, it’s important for leaders to recognize that this is a change process. And it cannot, and should not, be done quickly – only gathering demographic data or hiring individuals from certain groups. To make transformative, systemic change, sometimes you have to go slow to move fast. By moving “fast”, I mean making change that is lasting, impactful and sustainable.

Social psychologist Kurt Lewin understood this when he developed his change model that involved three important steps: Unfreezing, Changing and Refreezing.

Racism and other inequities are embedded into the very foundation of organizations, often in their policies and practices. These systemic issues can make even the person who professes to be “non-racist” act in racist ways, according to Murray Sinclair who headed Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission.  

One of the major challenges to IDEA change in organizations is getting people to understand the need for change. This is particularly true when addressing racism in the workplace. 

During a session I facilitated with an executive leadership team, one member shared her bafflement on how to manage the division – between racialized and White employees – that erupted in her organization after George Floyd was murdered by a Minneapolis police officer. Black and other racialized employees believed the organization was not moving fast enough to address inequities in the workplace and pointed to the organization’s hashtag support for Black Lives Matter as being inauthentic.

She shared that BGF (Before George Floyd) everyone seemed to “get along”. From her perspective, all employees could talk about “difficult issues” and come up with innovative solutions. She pointed to how her organization dealt with the COVID-19 pandemic. Everyone, she said, realized that COVID could infect anyone, so they worked together to prevent the spread of the virus to save lives. Why, she asked, could they not talk about racism?

I pointed out to her that almost everyone in her organization agreed that COVID was the common enemy. But not everyone could say the same about racism; that it could infect everyone in the workplace and is “deadly” for Black employees. Until that happens, I shared, polarization will exist, creating an “us vs. them” environment. There needs to be an Unfreezing.

This is the initial step in Lewin’s Change Model – the Unfreezing. It is natural for people to resist change, even when the change may be good for them. The goal of Unfreezing during IDEA change is to create an awareness of how the status quo is hindering the organization or harming individuals in the organization. Organizational structures, ways of thinking and behaviours must be examined to show employees the need for change. This can be done in several ways, including identifying how employees and leaders engage with cultural differences in the workplace, climate surveys that capture demographic data and explore how different identity groups are experiencing the workplace, and reviewing and dissecting policies and practices. 

Leaders must explain – in multiple ways, multiple times – that “what got us to where we are today, are not the same things that will get us to where we want to be.”  Communication is vital during the Unfreezing so employees are informed about not only why the change is necessary but what is to come and how it will benefit everyone in the organization. 

The next stage is the Changing, and it’s an important step as the organization transitions to creating a more inclusive, diverse, equitable and anti-racist (IDEA) workplace. This is when the organization, armed with qualitive and quantitative information from the Unfreezing stage in the form of Opportunities and Recommendations, begin to implement the change. This is the stage where people really get “scratchy” because it is a time of uncertainty, fear and, for some, impatience. 

During the Changing, new processes or structures may have to be introduced. For example, a new senior executive in charge of inclusion, diversity, equity, and anti-racism is likely to be hired. An entire new IDEA department or office may have to be established. New Human Resources policies may have to be created or old ones revised. The organization may now start collecting race-based data of its workforce. New formal ways of engaging with diverse communities – disability, LGBTQ2S+, race, ethnicity, etc. – may have to be created. 

Communication during this stage is also critically important as employees become familiar with the change and learn the new processes and behaviours that are expected of them.

This is the stage when employees need support as well as reminders of why the change occurred and how they and the organization will benefit.

The final stage in the IDEA change process is the Refreezing as the organization – its people, processes, structure, goal, mission, and vision – has reformed as the new norm or status quo. 

This stage is important because it ensures that, like a stretched rubber band, employees and the organization don’t snap back to their old ways or thinking or doing. This will require accountability measures and systems to be put in place to make sure the change is not lost. The change must be embedded into the organization’s culture. Rewarding and acknowledging the efforts of individuals in the organization will help to reinforce the new way of “how we do things around here.”

Making transformative and systemic change in creating an inclusive, diverse, equitable and anti-racist organization is not easy. But in today’s complex and diverse world, it is necessary. The initial stage of Unfreezing – building awareness, shining light in dark corners of the workplace, identifying gaps in policies and practices – can feel uncomfortable and slow. But it’s important to remember: Sometimes you have to go slow, to move fast.

Hamlin Grange is the Principal Consultant and CEO of DiversiPro 

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