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Empowering Inclusive Workplaces Starts with You

A woman sitting in a chair at a conference.
​Seramount President Subha Barry speaks at the SHRM Talent Conference & Expo 2022 in Denver on April 12. Photo by Chris Williams.

​"People are not excluded for what they lack, they are excluded because of what others lack."

Those were profound words from Seramount President Subha Barry, who provided powerful personal stories alongside those from others during the "Empowering Inclusive Workplaces Starts with You" general session Tuesday at the SHRM Talent Conference & Expo 2022 in Denver.

The discussion, led by moderator Wendi Safstrom, president of the SHRM Foundation, explained the importance of creating allies in the office, having the courage to call out any instances of unfairness or injustice, and connecting on more-personal levels with co-workers.

The discussion focused on employers doing more than simply saying employees are their most valuable assets. It articulated how HR can empower others to use their expertise to inspire; use empathy to help employers and employees imagine themselves in another person's situation; and improve workplaces by enhancing hiring practices to include older workers, as well as people with disabilities and those who were formerly incarcerated.

Inclusivity as Part of Company Culture

"You can do all of the right things for inclusion, technically," Barry said, "but if this mindset is not infused in your culture, you won't experience sustained change."

Barry said that during hiring, company leaders should "ask for a clean slate of diverse candidates for your open positions, but you must also ask that the panel of interviewers is diverse or else you'll get the same results as before.

"Panels tend to hire someone who looks most like them, so if the interviewers are all middle-aged white men, that's who they will choose," she explained.

She said that by documenting the slate of candidates and interviewers, the company can determine if it has accomplished different outcomes based on who is chosen for those roles.

Barry noted that it's important for all employees to not simply mind their own business. "If you see something that doesn't seem right, speak up about it," she said.

Everyone Needs a Great Ally

"Allyship" (a term Barry coined) is crucial to helping create an inclusive environment.

It's the act of creating allies from among all workers, not just those who are "like you," she said. "Have the attitude that you want to stand up for someone else because it's the right thing to do."

What makes a good ally? Having a sense of fairness and justice—and having the courage to stand up for others, said Barry, who added that it's possible to find lasting allies in uncommon situations.

Barry spoke of a supervisor she had who was a "guy's guy" and who surrounded himself with staff like himself as part of a truly "macho" culture. When Barry was hired, she was the only woman or person of color. When she was recognized for progress, she always felt that she had earned it on her own, and it wasn't something the supervisor bestowed upon her by his own decisions. She came to resent him.

Things changed, she said, when she was hospitalized with cancer.

"He showed up every day at the hospital to see how I was doing," Barry said. "He didn't say much, but he showed me a supportive, empathetic and caring side that I didn't know about. My lesson from it was to never put someone in a box based on what you perceive them to be."

They became allies, so much so that Barry delivered his eulogy when he died a few years ago.

"Remember: You can focus on a piece of a person you dislike, or you can focus on a positive one and embrace it," Barry said. "And, you need to look for ways to build trust with others. This creates a foundation for a relationship."

This approach to gaining allies can carry over to team members through empowerment.

Barry said an administrative assistant once told her, " 'You do such a great job with your job. Why are you doing mine?' This really stuck. Focus on what you do best and delegate to others."

Peers Can Serve as Mentors

Mentors are great assets, but mentorships and allyships don't always have to come from senior-level employees.

"Consider your peers to serve as your mentors," Barry said. "You'd be surprised that you can learn from them new perspectives on things that can help you."

She likened the strength that can come from having strong allies to a three-legged stool.

  • First, what will having that ally do for yourself? Identify the personal strengths you have that will help them, and use those strengths.
  • Next, what will the allyship bring to others? You have a notion of fairness and justice. Now, recognize those who might be struggling because of a lack of inclusion and step up for them.
  • Third, how can the organization benefit from the allyship? Look at the processes within the organization and figure out how to create structural fairness where perhaps there is none.

Autism Internship Program Inspires All

The most touching example of the session was the discussion about an autism internship program Barry helped to create while working at Freddie Mac as its SVP and chief diversity officer. The program focused on recognizing the skills of people who are autistic and then helping them find jobs where they could use those abilities.

"We wanted this to be more than simply hiring those on the spectrum to do something like stocking shelves," Barry said. "Our HR team invested time and money to train our staff on how to work with persons on the spectrum."

Teams were formed to lead this training, and included at least one worker on the team who had first-hand experience interacting with autistic family members or friends.

Among the things Freddie Mac learned from the program was that the employees who comprised those teams scored higher on job satisfaction ratings than those who didn't, and they also boosted their job satisfaction scores compared with their scores before being on these teams.

Barry said the same approach can be taken when addressing other groups of potential employees such as those with disabilities, veterans or seniors.

Helping Company Leaders Connect with Staff Members

Company leaders are crucial to creating inclusive work cultures. Barry said nearly every leader has experienced being excluded, and it's important to recognize this and learn from it as an organization.

For example, she spoke of one leader who came from a lower-income background and once appeared for a job interview wearing khaki pants and a white dress shirt. The other applicants had sport coats and ties. He didn't feel like he "looked the part." But before his interview began, someone lent him a sport coat and tie to put him more at ease. "I didn't even ask him to do that," the leader said, "and I'll never forget him for what he did for me."

Through leading by example, company leaders can promote and grow a culture of inclusion within their companies.

Barry pointed out, "Don't feel like you have to convince everyone in the company that [promoting this culture is] the best thing to do. There will be those who don't embrace it and feel that 'this is just not the place for me,' and will leave because they prefer working for a group like an 'old boys' club,' and that's fine. You weren't going to convince them, anyway."

Barry recommended leaders work to build trust and inclusion by hosting regular coffees or lunches with employees. Invite in four workers—people with diverse backgrounds, for example, women or people of color—and give them 10 or 15 minutes to speak about themselves.

"They might be nervous about doing so, but HR can coach them up on how to best speak on their values and value to the company, why they belong at the company and what they can contribute," she said. "This creates bonds organically and brings a greater sense of inclusion."

Truly having allies leads to a much greater feeling of belonging with the company, she said. And, the results from having these coffees and lunches are invaluable.

"No longer do these employees have to come to work and worry about things like your hair looks different or you speak in an accent—or eat with the same group for lunch every day," Barry said.

Paul Bergeron is a freelance reporter based in Herndon, Va.


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