So, this is something that has been on my mind a lot lately. What does it really mean when you say, “I support diversity and inclusivity”? How does someone, especially like me, truly support Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI)? As person and as a manager, how do I do it in a way that is authentic, not self-serving, and not patronizing. I will be honest, I really do not know what the right answer is, but this is what I think. I would love to get your feedback because this is something that is incredibly important to me, for many reasons, and hopefully it is important to you as well.
Before we get into that, here is a little bit about me, to give some context.
I am a Gen X’er, bordering between Millennials and Generation X. I grew up in Philadelphia, and like many northeast cities, nationality was incredibly important to your identity; there were Italian neighborhoods, Irish neighborhoods, Polish neighborhoods etc. I went to a public school that I think at the time was ~50% white, ~50% mixed minority, but predominantly black…I could be wrong, but the statistical accuracy is not important. I grew up in what would be considered back then a poor family, we struggled to say the least. I did not live the best life when I was younger. We moved around a lot, and not necessarily in the best places, but we got along. Heritage is incredibly important to me as it was to my father. He was incredibly proud of his Scottish and Irish heritage. I point this out because I could not imagine what it would be like to not know your background. My father was known by most as “Mad Dog”. He was a hard-working union worker, Operating Engineer (local 542 proud). He was rough, unapologetic, and intimidating to most people in the Northeast (Philly).
Anyway, while most people knew him as this rough and wild guy, I knew the real side of him. He was the guy who liked Broadway musicals and Julia Child. He did not care what you believed, what your gender or race was, what credentials you had, or where you came from. If you were good people, that is all he cared about. He was the guy who drove down from Philly (to South Carolina) and showed up dressed in a big fluffy dinosaur costume to surprise my little girls on valentine’s day. He was protective of kids, women, and family. Most of all, he had his values and his integrity, and nothing could change that. In my entire life knowing him, he never wavered.
My mother was 3rd generation Italian American coming from an “old-world” family. She worked hard to try to support the family she loved, raising three wild boys, dealing with various social issues as a working-class woman. What is especially relevant to this part of our story, without getting too personal, is what happened (continually) to her in her youth. Not only did this affect her and her relationships, but it also affected her marriage and her children. It affected all our family relationships, and it affected my own. It affected my brothers, and so many more. The damage people cause to others, as awful as it is to the victim, extends well beyond the victim. It changes everything. It changed me.
Growing up I became interested in social change. I loved RATM but I was not an anarchist. I loved my country, but I knew things needed to change. When I was a child, I wanted to become an architect, designing beautiful skyscrapers in new cities. Then things happened and that dream died. I then wanted to be a High School History teacher; I could use that as an opportunity to help really educate kids and promote the social change. Again, “life happened” and that idea was squashed, so I then joined the USAF. I served in the Air Force for 2 separate enlistments and I value that time because I learned so much professionally and personally, as well as what it means to be a leader and what it is like to simply live elsewhere.
One of the most important periods in my life was when I was deployed to Iraq. Taking all of the politics out of it, the units that I served with were doing their best. As airbase defenders, we served as the protection for those coming and going from the FOB and those living there (Defensor Fortis). While there were some intense and scary situations, I was significantly affected in two specific ways. First, seeing how some of the Iraqi people lived, especially the children, was heartbreaking. People living in mud-huts, breathing in the air from burn pits (we did too), drinking the milk of livestock that drank from toxic water, walking barefoot across rubble and playing in rocks; it was just awful. What was worse is when I came back and heard civilians saying that we should just make it a “glass parking lot”. It is easy to form opinions about people you have never met, but that was just horrible. They are people just like you and me, trying to live their lives as best as they can. They deserve better. While I could not do anything to change their lives, I do keep this in mind and I often wonder what has become of the people I met and saw over there, especially the children.
The other way that I was affected, is that this deployment really put things in perspective, in comparison to my own life. While things can get hard for me, I try to think back to those times, about those people that I met, and what we all went through (Iraqis and fellow airmen and soldiers). Although, it does not always change things for me in the moment, in my day-to-day life it does help keep me grounded and focus on what is really important: people.
Over the past 25 years of my professional career, I have worked to develop skills and refine my strengths while trying to find out what I want to do and who I want to be. I knew that I wanted to be in some leadership position, but I never really knew why. Throughout those 25 years, I must admit, I got lost in the grind of working in the corporate world. Part of it was due to my drive to achieve, and the other part was because I came from a non-traditional background. Everything I know, as it relates to computer programming and operations, I learned on my own. I went to college (Temple University & Greenville Tech) at various times in my life, not getting a degree until much later in life, long after I have already implemented things that I was learning. Balancing school, hustling to prove I that was just as good as others coming from a traditional path, while trying to simply develop my career, and having a family was consuming. While I completely appreciate people who go straight through school, I do have an appreciation of, as well as empathy for, those who come from a non-traditional path.
During my professional career, the part of me that cared about social change kind of faded away. It is not that I stopped caring, I just lost focus. Then, at some point I got an opportunity to do something different. I had the opportunity to build a team within a large enterprise, and then it started to come back. It first came back in the form of working to become the kind of leader that I would look up to, pulling leadership aspects from various people that I have met and admired throughout my life. Now I had some power, albeit small, to make some positive changes. Afterwards, I started noticing things again. The passion started coming back. I started seeing things differently as I realized the paradox of how the world was both evolving and devolving at the same time. I began thinking about what my two little girls may have to face when they grow up. Then another changed happened in my life. I had the opportunity to make an even greater difference. I was given the opportunity to grow a company, and I wanted to build something great. I wanted to build a company that had the most talented and diverse team you could find in the Upstate (South Carolina). I had the opportunity to build something that people could look at and say, “yeah, that is a great place to be, they really care about their people”. That was 2 years ago.
So here we are, 2 years later, and to be honest, I am just realizing what my personal mission is. I want to change the world, in whatever way I can, be that small or large. I am not looking for my own personal success, I am looking to help other succeed. I want to build something, or help build something, that my girls can reflect on after I am gone, and say, “yeah, he was a great dad, he really cared about people”. This does not have to be a company per se, this could be many things, but one thing is certain, like my father, I will not sway from my values or my integrity.
So, now to the question, how does someone like me, or anyone for that matter, truly support DEI?
Well first off, have integrity and do the right thing, even if it costs you. I could probably stop right there, but I know that there really needs to be more granular examples.
If you care, be sure that you are reaching out to demographics that are not represented.
Go to school career fairs or job fairs that typically would be overlooked. Even if you do not find candidates for hire, use that time to coach people, use that time to give people hope. Continue to go as well. People see what you are doing, as well as other companies. If others see you investing then they will be more inclined to do the same, creating more opportunities for more people. Again, you may not see immediate results, you may not even see results at all, but I assure you investing in those communities, schools, and organizations is worth it.
Go to elementary schools or high schools and present what you are doing and explain how to get there, and be sure to have someone that represents the audience actually be the speaker — if those people do not work at your company, then that is probably the place to start.
When you are hiring, be sure that you have people that represent the job seekers on the hiring panel. This does two things. First, it makes the candidate feel safe because they have someone on the other side that is part of the evaluation team. It also makes them feel good about your organization because you are showing them that you value the opinion of people like them (just be sure that you really do). One thing that I implemented when I started in my current position was the creation of a fair hiring panel. What I mean, is that if I was hiring, I had someone that represented someone that is the opposite of me. For example, if you are hiring and you have female candidates, be sure that you have a woman as a part of the decision panel. In fact, if you have women in your company, they should be a part of the panel regardless of who you are hiring; they should always have a voice in your process, period. From a practical point of view, women are going to recognize things that men will not, not because of some special power, it is simply because they have a different point of view.
With a fair hiring panel, you make decisions by requiring consensus; if it is not reached, the candidate would not be hired. At the same time, if any panel member had a strong concern, we would simply move on (after understanding what that concern was). By taking this approach you ensure that those who are under represented have a strong voice in the process. This also ensures that you are not hiring people based on your own bias or group bias. If you do not have diversity within your panel, then you need to find someone or some people and train them on how to evaluate candidates, even if they are not managers; empower and encourage people to be a part of the process.
Another thing you can do is place under represented people in positions of power, and then take a step back. Yes, hand over the reins, but have their back. What I mean to say is, you give them the responsibility to make hiring decisions, but you maintain accountability. You are a leader, and that is a part of what you do. If you truly trust your people, then there should be no issue. If they have not been part of the process before, you need to coach and mentor them, but let them make decisions. Let them be the ones on the hiring panel, but be available for advice. In doing this, you are creating a situation where those who are underrepresented are now making decisions on who to hire, having an influence on your organization. As you or your organization grows, the process is handed down and DEI grows organically. It just takes someone to care and do two simple things: give someone a chance and give them the power.
Within your organization, you also need to look across your teams and break down hidden barriers. This comes from the top down, and this does take some time and effort. You need to watch your people, see who are the people that are always in the spotlight and who are shadow employees (see my other article). Is there some kind of divide (intentional or not)? If you see it, change it. Give people the time to shine who may be being overlooked, especially those who are underrepresented.
I want to pause here and clarify one thing. When I am saying under represented, I am speaking about anyone and everyone that may be under represented within your organization (black, female, neurodivergent, etc.)
Also, if you see that people are not being respected, stop it dead in its tracks. Nothing erodes an organization quicker than leadership that does not protect their people. When it comes to respect, everyone deserves it. I will say this, if you are a part of my team, then you are a part of my team; I will have your back, period. If you are not a part of my team, I will have your back too. I will also say, it does not matter who you are; if you are an architect or admin, or if you are a janitor or an executive, you are valued and you all deserve the same respect as each other. Every person that I have hired, I stand by. Each one is incredibly talented, smart, and performs duties and functions that are incredibly complex.
A project coordinator is just as valued as a chief architect. A woman is just as valued as a man, a veteran is just as valued as college graduate, a black person is just as valued as a white person, someone that is 65 is just as valued as someone that is 25 and someone that is 25 is just as valued as someone that is 45. No one should be judged or dismissed because of who they are, what they look like, or where they came from. Every person deserves to be treated with kindness and respect.
But there is more.
What content do you use when representing your brand? Does it represent diversity and inclusion? Does it represent your company or are they all stock images? Do you celebrate diversity? Are you creating a safe and inclusive environment? Are you giving accommodations for those who are considered or consider themselves neurodivergent? When it comes to raises, are you ensuring that people are treated fairly; do you have a framework that supports this? Are you respecting that not everyone shares the same opinions as you, and do you respect their level of social comfort? This is beyond being a zero-tolerance organization. Zero tolerance is not inclusion. Are you including people in the decision-making process? Are you fairly considering them during performance evaluation rounds even though they may not be a part of your social circle? Do you even have support in this area (DEI)? Perhaps you can form a culture committee lead by a diverse group of employees, letting them address cultural topics within the company. Perhaps you can seek outside guidance? I am sure that there are other things that can be done. At the end of the day, if you really care about DEI, start somewhere. Invest in someone who is not like you and let them help you empower others. That is my mission going forward. Why do I do what I do? Because I care. I want to change the world, whether it is by creating an organization of diverse and talented people or by using my means to help people in the community personally. I want to change it for my girls, for my mom, and for my wife. I want to change it for all of the other women in the world and everyone else who is underrepresented, overlooked, or simply not given a chance.
Our world is getting smaller by the day, and we are going to hand it off to the generations below us. I never really understood the weight of that statement until I became a parent, now it is the heaviest statement in the world. I hope that what I leave behind is something that my girls can be proud of. I hope you do the same.