Inviting empathy, connection, and community is what ultimately leads to real and lasting growth. Diversity champions often use themselves and their own stories as a tool to influence others. I remember the impact of a colleague who quietly and courageously came out to a group of executive leaders who were making hurtful assumptions about the LGBTQ community. It totally shifted the conversation and got unlikely leaders on board. A global online panel with transgender colleagues talking about how caring their Sodexo managers and teams had been in supporting their transitions had people in tears, they were so moved. The willingness of these colleagues to open up dramatically shifted perceptions, creating a more compassionate workplace.
The stories I’ve heard people share of confronting their own prejudices and unearned privilege have gone a long way to create a climate in which people are honest about their own mistakes and willing to learn. These personal stories are what motivate us to continue the challenging work of DEI and what inspire allies to join the movement to create an inclusion ripple effect.
While there is power in personal stories, we need to be cognizant of the sacrifice and courage it takes to share them. We can create space, but we can never demand that someone share their experience. We can invite personal sharing, but we must not unintentionally pressure people to open up. That should always be an individual choice as it can take a toll on the individual sharing their lived experience. And we need to be mindful that not all cultures are comfortable with public story sharing but may do so in private.
What does it look like when DEI champions have an impact?
Passion for DEI: Jennifer’s Green Chain
Often a personal connection creates a sense of purpose and passion for DEI that can be infectious and naturally engage others, ultimately creating a groundswell of change.
When Vincent Meehan and his wife went to visit their daughter Jennifer’s first grade classroom one day, they found Jennifer, who has Down Syndrome, sobbing in the back of the class, saying two words over and over. They looked at her classmates who were making green paper chains and realized that Jennifer was saying “Green chain. Green chain.” She wanted a chance to make a chain, but she had been excluded from the activity — an activity she was fully capable of doing.
Now, at age thirty-three, Jennifer works for Sodexo Canada, as does her father. Vincent’s experiences raising Jennifer instilled in him a passion for including PWD, and Sodexo Canada’s ERG structure was able to offer Vincent a platform to harness that energy to better the organization.
Vincent served as Chair for Sodexo Canada’s ADEPT employee network, which stands for All Disabled Employees Possess Talent. ADEPT prioritized pushing for the recruitment of more employees with disabilities. As part of that effort, ADEPT compiled a resource list of ninety-five organizations throughout Canada that specialize in job readiness and recruitment of PWD. Since ADEPT began this work in 2015, over 600 PWD have been hired in Canada, with approximately 100 new people hired each year. Vincent suggested displaying a green paper chain in the office. For every new individual with a disability that joins Sodexo Canada, ADEPT adds a link to Jennifer’s Green Chain.
Champions at All Levels
Champions and allies can come from any level in the organization. Engaging at the grass roots ensures that those at entry levels feel included and believe that the organization is “walking the talk.” Multiple voices spawn innovation and a more inclusive culture. And people support what they help co-create. Being able to do with rather than to local employees creates ownership and helps embed the change, creating a domino effect. Sodexo Canada has a great example of engaging entry-level employees as champions.
Indigenous people make up 4.9 percent of Canada’s population. The Indian Act of 1876 aimed to “civilize” Indigenous people through a set of coercive and controlling policies. Under this Act, 150,000 Indigenous children were removed from their families and sent to residential schools. The intent was to isolate them from their cultures and assimilate them into the dominant culture. Research has exposed widespread sexual, physical, and emotional abuse in these schools, and thousands of these children never came home at all: they died or disappeared. Although the schools were closed by the late 1990s, their impact, along with exploitative economic practices, has left a legacy of poverty and intergenerational trauma.6
The Native American and Aboriginal Council (NAAC) is an Indigenous ERG at Sodexo Canada, and unlike most other Sodexo ERGs, it includes hourly as well as salaried employees. After they heard about NAAC at a town hall meeting, the hourly employee decided to join NAAC and focus on connecting to their own culture and communities. These were connections that had been broken over time due to the residential school history. To raise awareness of the residential school system, younger employees talked about the impact on their parents and families, and older employees shared their own experiences at the schools.7
One of the most successful initiatives of NAAC is also its most simple. They host Sharing Circles once a week. Drawing from an Indigenous cultural practice, people can only talk when an elder passes the stick to them. This helps people listen. “You hear their personal stories, and what people are going through,” said Michael Childane, a Sodexo site manager. “Attendance and performance issues began to be more manageable. If there is a personal problem amongst the team that is impacting the operation or if there is an ongoing challenge with an individual, we’ll ask someone from the community to facilitate a sharing circle.”8
In more hierarchical societies with greater power distance, it would not be the norm for the boss to invite the input of their subordinates, and frontline employees might not feel empowered to contribute. When Kristen Anderson was in China leading the Global Innovation and Technology Center for Coca-Cola, she asked her human resources manager for some feedback and cultural coaching. Kristen told me, “The HR manager came to me and said, ‘Kristen, you know, it would be better for team-building and inclusion of your staff if you spoke less often and you spoke last.’ Because I didn’t have a huge cultural understanding of the Chinese, and I didn’t realize with the hierarchical culture that if the manager speaks first, you know when the manager says something, no one’s going to disagree with them in front of others. I didn’t realize that the nodding of heads did not mean I agree with you; it meant I hear you.”9
External change agents walk a fine line between calibrating their behaviors to the cultural context and considering how to invite and ensure engagement across the spectrum in more hierarchical societies.
Visible Allies Speak Up
How do allies lean into speaking up on behalf of marginalized people? Taking a page from the LGBTQ ally approach, Deb Dagit, a US-based disabilities advocate and consultant, created the VOICE program to make PWD allies visible. Deb understood that many people hide their disability for fear of how they might be treated and the impact on their careers. At the same time, people may want to be supportive of coworkers with disabilities but worry about making them uncomfortable and don’t know how to start a conversation.
The VOICE program invited allies to display the VOICE symbol to indicate they were open to discussing tough issues related to disabilities and to signal that PWD were valued. These allies had training during which they learned techniques for speaking up when disrespectful comments or jokes were made about people with disabilities.
To be effective, change agents for inclusivity need to take into account the cultural norms. In cultures where the private domain is large, as in France, sexual orientation, for example, is considered a private matter. As a result, according to a 2018 BCG study, 46 percent of LGBTQ employees interviewed in France lie about their sexual orientation to their colleagues. In other cultures, it is more appropriate to be quiet allies as opposed to making the ally position public. Given these norms, how does one effectively push for change? In earlier chapters of this book, I mention several strategies including drawing on senior leaders as allies, sharing examples from other companies, and providing a counter outsider perspective to catalyze change.
*excerpted from Leading Global Diversity, Equity and Inclusion: A Guide for Systemic Change in Multinational Organizations by Rohini Anand, with permission from Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2021
Dr. Rohini Anand is a pioneer and sought-after thought leader in the diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) field and provides DEI advisory services to clients in the public and private sectors. Dr. Anand’s expertise spans executive leadership, human capital, global DEI and corporate responsibility. She is the author of “Leading Global Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion: A Guide for Systemic Change in Multinational Organizations“.