As we head into 2023 and economists are saying we’re on the verge of a recession, the impact this will have on diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) initiatives remains to be seen. Yet companies can’t afford to let DEI fall to the bottom of their priority list if they want to remain relevant and survive during an economic downturn and beyond.
In today’s conversation, Consciously Unbiased founder Ashish Kaushal sits down with Christopher Bylone Van Sandwyk, who was named one of this year’s top 15 Diversity Champions by Diversity Global magazine. They cover everything from the privilege Christopher has when he steps into the room as a white man and how he talks to other white men about DEI; why DEI leaders have to be more comfortable with data, and the DEI conversations leaders really need to be having in 2023. Read on for some key takeaways, and listen to the full conversation here.
*This is an excerpt of the interview has been condensed for length and clarity
Ashish: “What types of pushback are you seeing when it comes to DEI?”
Christopher: “Just look at the news. There’s pushback coming from all aspects. You don’t just have employees who are grumbling about what’s going on in the diversity space, but you also have lawmakers who are actually trying to legislate our profession out of existence. I think as DEI professionals, we need to make sure we’re figuring out ways to make our work embedded throughout the organization. What are you doing to make sure that your programs and your practices are equitable for all people as the way you do business?
If you’re just listening to this podcast, I’m a white man. I have a lot of privilege when I step into this space. And so for me, how do I talk to other white men about how they are just as important when we talk about diversity, equity, and inclusion? Society has given us a lot of privilege for many, many years. However, it’s on us to be part of the solution for how we’re going to have a more equitable, diverse, and inclusive society in which we live.”
Ashish: “What do you think are some of the underlying reasons for this pushback?”
Christopher: “I think it’s uncertainty. When you think about Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs coming out of the pandemic, how many people lost jobs? Just look at this year with all of the crises that are happening around the globe. We’re on the verge of a recession… I think people are very much concerned about their financial wellbeing. So when people are concerned about their financial wellbeing, they revert back to that lowest level in Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. It’s just making sure that you’re safe. Do you have the resources to survive? I think there is this thought that the more diverse we make our organization, the less opportunities there are going to be for people who may look like me. We need to figure out how we’re having an honest conversation about what diversifying our organization looks like. What does it mean to be inclusive, and how are we creating equitable policies and practices so that all people have access to the opportunities in which they want?”
Ashish: “What do you say when people say, ‘Well, then we’re not hiring the best person for the job?’”
Christopher: “I call B.S. One of the things that DEI leaders have to talk about is that we have to end the ‘kumbaya.’ We need to be talking about real, honest conversations. Historically, there have been B-level men hired and promoted over A-level women and people of color. It’s not about less opportunities for white men. That’s not it.
Take the Fortune 500, for example: there are only going to be 500 CEOs. So it’s not about expanding the pie. There’s only going to be 500 CEOs. There are six Black CEOs in the Fortune 500 in 2022 at the time of this recording. What we need to say is, look, white men—and I’m one of them, so I can talk to myself—it’s not about you not being hired or not being promoted because you are a white man. It is that we’re going after the absolute best candidate. Because I will tell you, whoever says, you’re making us not hire the best candidate and you’re only making us hire the woman or a person of color, that goes against everything we’re talking about in terms of DEI. It’s your tokenism. It’s actually disrespectful to the person you’re hiring, because who wants to be the diverse hire? That ruins everything about inclusion and about creating a place where people belong and can bring their whole, authentic selves to work.
What we need to say is that the B-level men, white men who have gotten promoted and hired, and who by the way, probably got all the resources they needed to be successful when they started to fail, we are not going to hire B-level people anymore. We’re going to hire A-level people, and if the A-level person is a woman or a person of color, or a person who has a disability, even better. And we’re also going to make sure that those individuals also have all the resources they need to be successful…It’s not about reverse discrimination, it’s about actually creating a society in which everybody has an equitable opportunity to advance.”
Ashish: “One of the things that’s becoming clear is that we have to be comfortable looking and measuring our data. Can you tell me why you think DEI leaders are uncomfortable measuring DEI data, and how do we get more comfortable with data?”
Christopher: “If you think about good DEI programs, they go beyond celebrating International Women’s Day, Black History Month, Pride Month, International Day of Persons With Disabilities and having employee resource groups (ERGs). Every good DEI program needs to have those running very well. You also need to make sure that you have equitable policies. And the way that you’re going to make sure that those equitable policies are actually working is by knowing what the diversity is of your organization. So if you are not comfortable with Microsoft Excel, and you’re a DEI leader, go take a class. Seriously. Get familiar with some basic functions. If you’re trying to say the organization isn’t diverse enough, you need to come with the numbers and [be able to pinpoint where] your diversity problem is.
In my role at a previous organization, we were able to determine that the reason why we were not seeing more women advance into levels of executive leadership in our organization was because women were not going from junior management to that first rung of senior management. That’s actually where the speed bump was. Once they got over that hump and got into what we would consider to be the senior leadership of the organization, the data showed us that a woman had the same likelihood of being promoted as the man. But when you had 50% women in junior management, but you were only promoting 30% women, you are cutting off your own feet. The only way that we were able to figure that out was to get comfortable with data, and really understand what the data was telling us.”
Ashish: “We use the word ‘inclusion’ a lot, but what’s your definition of an inclusive colleague?”
Christopher: “An inclusive colleague is somebody that is committed to fostering an inclusive, unbiased culture that unleashes every individual’s unique potential. For me, it really is key that we need to allow every individual to be their whole, authentic selves at work—no matter who they are. That’s really what it comes down to.”
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