February 19, 2021

Making Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion a ’Mantra’: DE&I Strategist Talia Fox on Representation and Company Culture

Things have been different lately for Talia Fox. When the CEO of learning consulting firm KUSI Global walks into a room, she notices a new look of respect when people’s eyes meet hers. The energy is different. People are paying more attention to her, as if they’re wondering who she might be.

“I absolutely know beyond a shadow of a doubt that it’s because she just became vice president,” Fox says.

By “she,” Fox means Kamala Harris, who holds the triple distinction of being the first Black woman, the first South Asian woman, and the first woman to serve as vice president of the United States.

A Black woman herself, Fox is well aware of the effect a high-profile Black leader can have on the broader American psyche. This isn’t her first rodeo. In the wake of Barack Obama’s 2008 election, she says, her son had a similar experience at school.

“People would not say ‘hi’ to him; he would be ignored,” she says. “But the day after the inauguration, people were saying, ‘Good morning.’ They were shaking his hand.”

In a nutshell, that’s the power of representation. When a Black person — or a member of any historically underrepresented group — ascends the political or corporate leadership ranks, it’s not just an achievement for that singular person. Their rise to prominence has a ripple effect, subtly but perceptibly shifting the societal discourse by presenting a tangible alternative to the way things currently are.

The Ambient Psychology of Unconscious Bias

Across nearly every industry in corporate America, the leadership ranks are largely white and male. Human resources and recruiting are no exception. This state of affairs is not just a product of unconscious bias and systemic racism — it also plays a role in perpetuating that bias and racism. When most leaders are white and male, that sends a message to society at large: White males look like leaders, while other people do not. As Fox puts it, “You associate the boss with looking a particular way.”

That association has all kinds of ramifications for how we hire, evaluate people of color and women vying for leadership positions, and treat the women and people of color who currently occupy leadership positions.

The election of Vice President Harris challenges this narrative about what a leader looks like and makes it easier for people to conceive of a successful leader who isn’t a white male. All of a sudden, a new possibility seems to open up before us.

“Now, when a Black woman walks into a room, and she’s smart and she’s sharp, you actually can’t help but to think that maybe you want to bet on this person, maybe you want to give them a shot,” Fox says.

People have a clear example of a leader who is not a white man — in one of the nation’s highest offices, no less. That’s bound to alter the ambient psychology that keeps us subconsciously associating leadership with only one kind of person.

Time to Make a Choice

While representation is undoubtedly powerful, it doesn’t solve systemic bias and racism in corporate America on its own. What it does is open new paths of possibility. Organizational leaders still need to make a conscious choice to walk those paths if they want their diversity, equity, and inclusion (DE&I) efforts to make a difference.

“There’s a lot of social pressure and people pressure urging organizations to make [DE&I] a priority,” Fox says. “So organizations can no longer say, ‘This is fifth on the list.’ It has to bubble up to first on the list. You have permission to make this a priority.”

In Fox’s view, companies that fail to focus on DE&I now are about as outdated as companies without tech departments. In other words: In light of the current conversations around representation in leadership roles, not having an active DE&I strategy makes your company look like it’s behind the times — and no one wants to work for a company stuck in the past.

Fox shares a story she heard from a few Harvard graduates recently: In interviews, they flat-out ask whether a company has a DE&I plan. If the answer is unsatisfactory, these candidates will end the interview there, get up, and walk out.

“So in terms of top talent, they’re not only looking for opportunities but also for organizations that are investing in DE&I,” Fox says. “[DE&I] is becoming a strategy not only for recruitment and retention of minority candidates but also recruitment and retention of high-performing millennials in general.”

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It All Begins With Culture

What does an active approach to DE&I look like in today’s day and age? At KUSI, Fox and her team counsel clients to start with culture.

“Everyone wants to start with the numbers and try to improve them, but it’s really the culture that hurts the numbers and prevents retention in the first place,” Fox says.

That’s because DE&I isn’t simply some subset of people strategy, some toolbox of special techniques targeting candidates and employees from certain populations. Rather, it is your people strategy.

“If you care about people, you care about DE&I,” she says. “If you don’t care about DE&I, you don’t care about people.”

KUSI Global’s approach to the active pursuit of DE&I goals is centered around a set of cultural habits that should be seen and practiced by everyone in the organization. At first glance, some of these habits may not seem particularly unique to DE&I efforts — but that’s kind of the whole point.

“There’s a lot of normal business issues that people don’t think are diversity issues,” Fox says. “Just like racism and bias are baked into most organizational systems, we have to bake DE&I into every aspect of the system.”

While KUSI promotes 10 habits in total, they can be broadly categorized into two buckets: alignment and communication.

Alignment: DE&I Is Everyone’s Job

“You can’t just have your chief diversity officer, who is the only person with a Brown face, hanging around with anyone who looks like them and think that means you’re providing support,” Fox says.

Baking DE&I into the system means getting everyone in that system on board with DE&I efforts in tangible, meaningful ways. Elements of cultural competence and DE&I should be part of all leadership development plans, and even those employees who aren’t leaders should be able to articulate the core elements of the company’s DE&I strategy.

“Just like every employee can articulate the values and mission of the organization, every employee should know the DE&I strategy,” Fox says.

On an organization-wide level, Fox recommends actively aligning every employee in the company around each quarter’s No. 1 cultural or DE&I-related priority. Whether it’s changes to the hiring process, new training programs, or something else, every employee should be aware of the goal and have a clear understanding of how they’ll contribute to reaching it.

Perhaps most importantly, accountability for DE&I efforts shouldn’t fall solely on the shoulders of a separate DE&I team. Instead, someone in each department should be accountable for establishing and executing DE&I goals in their department.

“There is a person assigned for accountability in legal, there is a person assigned for accountability in performance management, and so on,” Fox says. “Remember, DE&I isn’t just icing on the cake or an extra thing you do. The only way this is going to work is it has to be embedded into the culture and people strategy.”

Communication: Who Gets to Be in the Know?

Internal communication may not seem like a DE&I effort, but establishing a rhythm of inclusive communication is actually key. Otherwise, people are sure to end up in silos, and many of the people kept out of important conversations will be minority employees.

“We often hear, ‘Oh, information doesn’t flow to the right people,'” Fox says. “Well, it really doesn’t flow to certain individuals. Do you think you’re out of the loop? If you look different or behave differently, you’re really out of the loop.”

Fox recommends studying how information flows in the organization to ensure that everyone receives the same messages and gets plugged into the same conversations. As part of that, the organization needs a system for soliciting employee input on DE&I obstacles and opportunities, as well as a system for reporting on and analyzing DE&I concerns.

Fox also advises consistent conversation on behalf of leadership to address how DE&I fits into the company’s core values and purpose. The good news is that it shouldn’t be hard to do.

“If you take any company’s core values, they’ll be able to find the connection to DE&I,” Fox says. It goes back to her earlier statement: “If you care about people, you care about DE&I.”

Ultimately, KUSI’s habits are about making DE&I more embedded in and broadly visible across the entire organization. DE&I is inseparable from culture, and culture is intertwined with every aspect of organizational operation, so it makes sense that DE&I would be too. Plus, there’s the more practical component of the project: If DE&I is integrated into the company’s cultural fabric, it becomes that much harder to let DE&I concerns fall by the wayside.

“It becomes a habit, a mantra, something everybody knows and talks about,” Fox says. “It becomes integrated into everyone’s head: ‘I don’t know what you do at home, but in this organization, this is how we treat each other, and this is how we approach and address equity in this company and in society.'”

Read more in Diversity

Matthew Kosinski is the former managing editor of Recruiter.com.