Many diversity, equity and inclusion (DE&I) initiatives stumble out of the gate because they are too siloed. Creating employee resource groups (ERGs) is a good first step to engage employees in your DE&I work, but the effort shouldn't stop there. For employees to bring their full selves to work, employers need to understand that individuals are not defined by just one characteristic. People can identify with multiple marginalized groups, and employers should be mindful of that.
[Want to learn more about how you can make your DE&I programs more inclusive? Join us at the SHRM Annual Conference & Expo 2021, taking place Sept. 9-12 in Las Vegas and virtually.]
Brian McComak, founder and CEO of Hummingbird Humanity, a New York City-based firm that helps companies improve DE&I, emphasizes the importance of intersectionality. As a gay man who is HIV-positive and battles depression and anxiety, McComak has insights into multiple communities. However, he also acknowledges that there are other communities that he can't speak for, and he therefore has a responsibility to support them.
"I have privilege as a white, cisgender man," he said. "And I also have the experiences of the marginalized. And so, I commit to using the experiences from my marginalized identities to try and understand others and amplify the voices of the unheard."
As such, an instructional series that McComak is currently working on at Hummingbird focuses specifically on giving voices to members of the LGBTQ community who are people of color who may or may not be cisgender. "For Pride month, we shared a conversation called 'Beyond Pronouns,' hosted by two transgender men," he said. "And before that, we featured a conversation hosted by and about queer women. I give them my platform to share their stories."
The work McComak does at Hummingbird can be traced back to his personal experiences working at major corporations like The Walt Disney Co., L'Oreal, Tapestry and Red Lobster. While he was working in HR at Burbank, Calif.-based Disney, he was struggling to fit into the corporate mold that the company required. His manager encouraged him to go the other way—to embrace who he is and move into the DE&I space. "My personal lived experiences and my professional identity had to find a way to coexist," he said. "And she opened the door for me to bring my full self to my work."
Later in his career, McComak led DE&I for Tapestry, the New York City-based fashion holding company that owns Coach, Kate Spade and Stuart Weitzman. He worked to help the company achieve a perfect score on the Human Rights Campaign's (HRC's) Corporate Equality Index. But that wasn't the goal; for McComak, that was the base line. "We said, 'OK, what else do we need to do?' And that led to a number of shifts that happened over the course of time," he said.
For example, in 2019, Tapestry began planning its own LGBTQ Pride Month celebrations for its employees. McComak put together a planning committee of employees that included LGBTQ people of color, transgender people, nonbinary people and others to get diverse perspectives on what those celebrations should be. "We asked, 'What do you want to bring to light for Pride this year?' I didn't want us to get into this formulaic approach that we march [in the New York City Pride March] every year and feel like that's the right answer," he said. "The conversation about the community changes each year. So, let's make sure we're part of the conversation."
Eventually, during those meetings, one employee felt comfortable enough to tell McComak that they didn't want the celebration to only be about cisgender, gay, white men. As a cisgender, gay, white man, McComak felt like he had reached a milestone in that his employees felt empowered enough to say this to him and trust that he would seek to understand. "I'm grateful that I was able to create space," he said. "I'm grateful that I demonstrated my desire to listen and hear what they needed. And so, our celebrations that year centered around queer people of color and told stories of individuals who are transgender and nonbinary."
The Work Continues
As McComak's efforts suggest, the work is never done. Companies might be miles ahead of where they were a decade or two ago, but the journey to progress is ongoing.
One key factor in creating truly progressive workspaces is emphasizing inclusive language. Josh and Michael Saterman, husbands and co-founders of New York City-based DE&I firm Saterman Connect, do a lot of work with employers to help them understand why some seemingly innocent terminology can be harmful to employees. For example, they encourage businesses to build awareness of words like "family" or "traditional family" because of the implications that those terms can have for LGBTQ individuals.
"Many times, people in the LGBTQ+ community need to have a chosen family because their biological family doesn't have a relationship with them," explained Josh Saterman. "So we'll talk a lot about the power of language and using words like 'chosen family' or 'loved ones.' "
For example, in 2013, Guido Barilla, chairman of Barilla Pasta, gave an interview where he commended the idea of the "classic family." He espoused his belief that he doesn't "agree" with LGBTQ families and even went so far as to say that he would never feature one in a commercial. That interview set off a firestorm on social media, and Barilla CEO Claudio Colzani quickly found himself scrambling to save his company's reputation. Since that time, Barilla has had a turnaround, receiving a perfect score on the HRC's Corporate Equality Index every year since 2014.
"Not only have they recognized that moment and acknowledge the use of language and unintended consequences, but they are now, I would say, a leader in DE&I," Michael Saterman said. "So, when it comes to corporate social responsibility, there is no 'perfect.' At every company, no matter who you are, no matter what you do, you can always do more."