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  • Writer's pictureFletcher Consulting
Can you answer "the DEI question"?

The interview is coming to a close, and you’re excited about this candidate. You give them a chance to ask their questions of you. They say:

“I noticed that the people on the leadership page of your website all look pretty similar. And, I don’t see any people of color in your department. I’m curious about what your organization is doing to move DEI forward?”

Does this question take you by surprise? 

Maybe it’s a white male candidate, and you made an assumption that DEI wouldn’t be a priority for them.

Or maybe it’s a woman or a person of color, and the perspectives they have would add vital new decision-making power to your team.

But as a white and/or male manager, maybe you’ve always allowed other people to be the mouthpiece when diversity was the topic.

I bring up this scenario when I lead workshops on interviewing for hiring managers. I urge participants to be prepared with an answer to the question. 

Participants who are in the majority groups at their organizations sometimes push back. “We don’t know all the statistics!” they say.

Or, “Well, our firm really isn’t diverse. I want to make us look good.”

I answer: Learn the statistics.

Be knowledgeable of the efforts that your organization is making. You don’t want to be the person who says, “Hold on, let me get my Black colleague.”

And even if the numbers are not where you want them, share them and be honest.

You could say:

“You're right, you are going to be one of the only women at this level. And here’s what we are going to do to support you, and continue to build a more diverse team around you.”

Recently, a workshop participant—a white male law firm partner—endorsed this approach based on his experience. He told the group: 

“Just yesterday I was doing a follow-up interview with a Black woman. She asked me about the firm’s diversity efforts. So I talked to her about our progress...and our challenges too. She thanked me for being open and honest. In fact, she told me I was the only person at the firms she is considering who has not tried to make it sound like everything is perfect.”

People who have been excluded in their field know what they’re getting into.

They don't want to be tokenized. They want to be part of an organization that is working to transform, and whose leaders can articulate why it matters and why it’s hard. 

The candidate in this story appreciated that an organization was candid about where they were in their journey, rather than trying to sugarcoat it. 

And people of color are in demand among high-level companies. The top candidates have options. They may choose a firm that is already diverse, or they may choose the one that has a commitment and a plan to get there.

But only if the person interviewing them shows comfort and awareness—as opposed to being uncomfortable and clueless. 

  • Writer's pictureFletcher Consulting

I was riding down the elevator after leading a workshop last week when a participant asked me a question that surprised me. Not because of the question—it’s a familiar one, worth asking—but because of who was asking it.

She was following up on a case study from the workshop, about a hypothetical client who created a hostile environment for an employee. A member of the client’s team made a homophobic comment, suggesting that a male employee who was gay wouldn’t be “tough enough” for an assignment. 

The participant asked me the questions that we had discussed as a group: when is it okay to say something when a client shows bias or hostility? And what can you say when your employer’s business outcomes may be at stake? 

These are the same fundamentals everyone grapples with in a situation like this. What struck me was that this participant was a young Black woman. 

Speaking up against bias is easier for some than for others.

The ramifications of speaking up are very different for her than for someone else.

Straight white cisgender men, for instance, may find a client annoying, but they're not likely to be worried about sexual or racial harassment themselves. This participant could be the target of any of those things.

And if she says something to point out a problem with a client, her perceptions are more likely to be second-guessed because of biases people frequently have about race and gender.

She knew I would see all that, as a Black woman myself.

As I looked at her, remembering how it feels to carry these extra risks, particularly as a junior employee, the first thing I said was, “I’m impressed that you’re willing to say anything.”

Of course, employers vary. Fortunately, the leadership of the organization where this woman works prioritizes protecting employees, whether they are onsite or with an outside client. They have made clear that the company would go as far as firing a client if an incident were egregious or if they couldn’t resolve a situation. 

But a lot of employers would not. It’s easier (though rarely easy) to call in a peer. It’s harder with a boss, and harder still with a client or customer. The financial stakes are higher. The approach would need to be more delicate.

On top of that, when the person doing the interrupting brings one or more marginalized identities, they have to weigh the cost of extra stress and energy—it takes a toll. 

The elevator ride wasn’t long enough to deeply probe the challenge with this brave participant. But the moment stuck with me.

It’s a reminder that we don’t all bear this burden evenly; some people face bias and harassment situations more than others. 

To be supportive of all employees, make sure you give particular consideration to those with marginalized identities. They are brave enough to speak up in spite of the personal risk.

I learned enough about inclusive leadership at lunch yesterday to inspire me for years.

At YW Boston’s annual Academy of Women Achievers luncheon, the exuberant (and always fabulous) emcee—Boston’s NBC10 anchor Latoyia Edwards—provided the first lesson. She asked each of the five awardees to come up on to the stage of the hotel ballroom dancing to a song of their choice. 

The diverse crowd heard snippets of Beyonce, Motown, and Dua Lipa in the giant hotel ballroom. And these eminences of business, non-profit, and government—including Governor Maura Healey—let the rhythms loosen them up. 

Authenticity is strength

My takeaway: inviting people to show their full, authentic humanity brings out their strengths. 

Three other themes recurred in the onstage dialogue that followed:

  1. Inclusion is a daily choice. Maggie Baxter, V.P. of Programming, NBC Boston, NECN, and Telemundo Boston, explained how the TV stations she leads prioritize telling the stories of the widest range of people in our city. “Every day, this is the filter we use when we develop our stories. But more importantly, it’s the filter we use when we deal with each other.” Governor Healy relayed the daily prompts she gives herself: “Who's in the room with you? Who are you taking with you into meetings? Do you bring out those voices, particularly of women, particularly people of color?” And Boston’s Chief Communications Officer, Jessicah Pierre, added, “DEI can't just stop at representation. It doesn't matter if there are more of us in the room if the systems don’t change, if the culture’s not changed.”

  2. Diversity has many dimensions. Pamela Everhart, S.V.P. and Head of Regional Public Affairs & Community Relations at Fidelity, told a story: “In law school I was in three different study groups: I was in the all Black women study group; I was also in a group with people who were in second careers; and I was in a group with all white men. Because financial services is 70% - 80% white men—and I wanted to see how they think.” Dr. Aisha Francis, President and CEO of Franklin Cummings Tech, advised us each to assemble a “personal kitchen cabinet of five people—and they should not all look like you.”

  3. Mentorship is fundamental. These exceptional leaders consistently credited others for their success—and they pay that forward. “The best way to succeed as a woman is to first help others and bring them along,” Ms. Everhart summarized. For Ms. Baxter, this includes being vulnerable: “The best thing you can do for other women and others is to share that 2020 hindsight—the ability to look back at where we didn't succeed and what did we learn from that—because you can help them take a different path.”

The experience was best encompassed by Beth Chandler, the President & CEO of YW Boston: “Our support for one another is what will keep us strong through the challenges ahead.”

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