For many employees, honest discussion on many topics is inhibited when supervisors and bosses are present.
Discussing discrimination and exclusion in the workplace can prove even more challenging when bosses – who have the power to hire and fire – are themselves the ones needing the most training on inclusion practices.
So what’s the correct way to hold sessions? Include supervisors and not have full employee input? Or leave the bosses out even though you recognize they’re in need of discrimination and exclusion training as well?
I prefer to include supervision and staff together. Here’s why.
Differing Opinions on the Same Organizational Goal
In a particular organization I worked with, I agreed to train the leaders and managers in one session, and then all the other employees in their own workshops. The result?
Individual contributors questioned why supervisors weren’t in the room, as they felt they needed the most instruction. Yet their supervisors felt their presence would inhibit individual contributors from speaking up, fearing retaliation.
I prefer to have everyone in the room because I want relationships to be built.
I want senior leaders speaking out, being vulnerable. Why? Because that’s probably how they’re feeling – scared they might say something that crosses the line and employees will hold them accountable.
This creates a learning container where supervisors can share more personally – and employees now view their bosses as more caring and committed to equity in the workplace.
Lay the Groundwork for Authentic Dialogue on Discrimination
When employees feel their leaders rarely share anything, I meet with the senior leaders beforehand, explaining they’re an integral part of the workshop.
Leaders are asked to define how their role could help create the container for authentic dialogue, engagement, relationship-building, and deepening understanding.
When they say they’ll sit silently, I’m honest with what little that would accomplish. People will think the session is meaningless. Bottom line: it’s just not productive.
My best tips for bosses:
- Show up very early.
- Engage with employees on a personal level before the session starts.
- Be authentic, sharing honestly.
- It’s ok to feel vulnerable and scared.
At the start of a session, if bosses and employees are in the room, I ask: “Who has their supervisor and who has two and three levels of leadership in the room”?
I state my expectation: “I’d like everyone to leave their titles at the door”. For those with leadership roles, I’m expecting them to be the first to be honest and relate personal examples and stories that may feel a bit scary to talk about.
I want them to set an example for the session, putting issues out in the open. I want employees to feel comfortable knowing their supervisors are sharing. When you’re talking about hot button issues like discrimination, exclusion, and diversity, this is key.
Explain the Process and Purpose of the Inclusion Session
I set aside some time to meet with senior leaders and explain beforehand:
- When people talk how they were marginalized, you need to relate in and share something from your own experience to connect with them.
- Recognize the power of hearing people talk about marginalized identities, and as a senior leader, acknowledge and appreciate their willingness to share.
Now you’ve inspired positive, sharing dialogue. Keep the momentum going by explaining the need for ongoing training.
Equity and Inclusion: Think Long Term, System Change
When I have an invitation to do training, I think about long term systemic organizational goals and how this one training could contribute to positive change.
To make the training most effective, I explain how supervisors can follow up the session with one-on-one conversations. I provide questions for them to ask, such as “How can we take some of these activities and bring them into our team meetings?”
Without follow-up, the same old-same old exclusionary patterns persist. When supervisors know they’re expected to have conversations afterwards – even if only three employees attend out of twelve – dialogue can be constructive and helpful.
Truth be told, some are honest and admit they haven’t had follow up talks. That’s when it’s time for a plan to be drawn up.
“One way to keep momentum going is to have constantly greater goals.”
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