Do you belong?

03/31/2017

Last Thursday, Google announced the opening of a new Howard University campus at Google’s corporate headquarters in Mountain View, California. Howard is a private historically black university located in Washington, DC whose alumni include Stokely Carmichael, Thurgood Marshall, and Ta-Nehisi Coates. Dubbed “Howard West”, the campus represents Google’s continued efforts to attract and retain black software engineers.

It’s an important step forward, and not just because of the symbolic connection to one of the nation’s most respected HBCUs. What I’m hoping for is an acceleration of the collisions between cultures. The dearth of black software engineers in the ranks of Silicon Valley companies isn’t simply a numbers issue — a leaky pipeline, as it were — it’s also reflective of the cultural and geographic separation of demographics.

Two of the most effective ways of breaking down cultural barriers in the workplace are are 1) storytelling and 2) the intentional formation of social bonds. Storytelling in this context is the invitation for everyone, regardless of job title, to share personal and candid stories about how they experience the world. Indeed, in my lectures and workshops, sharing my story reliably results in others feeling empowered to share theirs. Social bonds are formed when employees realize that the differences which divide them are at once trivial and interesting once the air is cleared. In fact, we can all relate to feelings of discrimination and marginalization if we create the space to understand and be understood.
And what’s next?

I’m preparing for a few weeks of travel, which makes me sound a lot busier than I really am, and the theme of my speaking engagements revolves around the notion of belonging. One might argue that it’s simply the latest term to inch us closer to acknowledging the suffocating effects of structural racism and systematic, historical discrimination experienced day in and day out by marginalized groups, but we’ll discuss that in another newsletter.
Let’s review:

Organizations became interested in diversity in the late nineties and early two thousands when financial companies were rocked by enormous discrimination lawsuits. Sex and race discrimination settlements in the hundreds of millions forced companies to institute programs to protect their bottom line. Not exactly a warm and fuzzy moral imperative, but it’s what got the ball rolling.

As diversity programs merged with social progress, organizations and those standing to benefit from them started taking a closer look at what was and wasn’t working. The term “inclusion” grew from this, which is increasingly lumped into conversations about diversity. They aren’t the same. If diversity is about representation, inclusion takes into account the subjective lived experiences of the folks who comprise this diversity. Diversity, as the saying goes, is being invited to the party, and inclusion is being asked to dance (Vernā Myers).

Inclusion isn’t as easy to measure, as it’s not a simple issue of headcount. This is is where diversity slogans and taglines begin to ring hollow for many organizations, because it takes courage to see this through. This is why the technology industry has spent the past two years investing in diversity programs that don’t work. They’re safe, socially acceptable, minimize discomfort, and allow leadership to separate themselves from the results.

Belonging is the idea that a person and the elements that comprise their humanity are acknowledged. Many organizations seek to minimize the idea that difference exists in the workplace, to their continued peril. Not only does this not work in places like New York City, it runs counter to the research. Scholars studying social belonging at the University of Colorado in 2007 discovered that normalizing concerns about belonging can be productive. I’d conjecture that it’s essential.

Tech companies have been actively recruiting at HBCUs for years without much to show for it. There are a number of factors to explain this, but the one you’ll hear from black folks pursuing employment opportunities is feeling “othered” in their interactions and experiences. Microsoft found in the nineties that if you provide enough onsite comforts, engineers will spend most of their waking hours at work. Today’s leading tech companies invest heavily in comforts such as yoga classes, rock climbing walls, and massages…without realizing that there might be tens of thousands of potential employees who have precisely no interest in any of these perks.

“She wasn’t a good culture fit” then becomes a replacement for what could just as easily be replaced by “it was clear that she found the artificial reality we’ve constructed for 25 year old white males to be a bit strange and devoid of signals that she’d find a home here” or simply “She didn’t feel like she belonged here.”

The truth is available if we seek it out, but it takes courage. If you were the VP of HR at a multinational tech company on the world stage, would you commission a study that’s likely to surface clear evidence that your best efforts as an organization do more to exacerbate disparities in tech than to shrink them? If you answered “yes” then it’s likely that you wouldn’t have that position in the first place, or for long after commissioning the study.

This is unfortunate, because the data clearly shows that people from different backgrounds experience diversity and inclusion programs differently, and define these terms in different ways. What’s worse is that poorly-implemented diversity programs have been shown to activate bias and incite backlash. This suggests doing nothing is better than doing it poorly, but the former is no longer an option.

Diversity. Inclusion. Othering. Belonging. It’s a lot to keep up with, and even harder to engage with meaningfully. But this is the work, and there has never been a better time for organizations to step up and lead.

Catch me if you can: if you’re going to be at the Forum on Workplace Inclusion in Minneapolis, Bright Horizons’ 2017 Solutions at Work in Austin, The Culture Conference in San Francisco, or the Freedom and Fairness Workshop in Oakland, holla.

If not, enjoy last week’s criminally good articles on Abernathy.

Seriously, writers like Alonge and Jourdan make my work as a publisher a million times easier. My editor, however, must continue to fight with me over hyperbole (smile).

Have a great weekend.