How to Support Staff Across Differences in Identity

Many organizations start their racial equity journey from a place of diversity. The prevailing aspiration is to increase the presence of people from different racial identities within their organizations

Staff WILL Experience Your Organization Differently and By Identity

I wondered about racial equity as the newest shiny penny for nonprofits in an earlier post on my blog. In that reflection, I raised three critical questions for leaders in organizations doing equity work:

Are you willing to be adaptive?
Are you willing to confront race and power dynamics in your organization?
Are you willing to change your policies and practices to affirm staff whose experiences within your organization may differ?

This week’s reflection unpacks issues nested in the third question: Policy and practice change as a strategy to support identity-based differences among your staff. Many organizations start their racial equity journey from a place of diversity. The prevailing aspiration is to increase the presence of people from different racial identities within their organizations.

Diversity Starts Will Create Culture Stumbles
It is tempting to start with diversity, but it is not the best place. Creating a racially and ethnically diverse staff that is also inclusive requires a shift in organizational policies and practices to support it. It’s not an organic phenomenon. When organizations take on policy and practice change, it usually starts in the Human Resources space, making a lot of sense. However, I encourage organizations to look at their workflows and how work moves from ideas to completion.

DEI leaders and change-makers, there are numerous hidden pain points within these processes.

Policy and Practice Change Can Be Pivotal

People have always had differential experiences at work, but those differences are heightened as the pandemic continues. From macro and microaggressions to toxic managers, many people feel like they don’t belong in their organizations.

Here is an example from a recent Forbes article by Kathy Caprino. For Black women, the pandemic has added additional burdens to what was already a worse experience in the workplace.

  • 52% of Black women report being the “only” of their gender and race at work.
  • [Black women] are often more likely to feel uncomfortable bringing their whole selves to work:
    • 42% feel uncomfortable sharing their thoughts about racial inequity, and
    • 22% feel like they can’t talk about the impact current events are having on them or people in their community.
    • Black women are 2.5 times more likely to report the death of a loved one, yet 1.5 times more likely to feel uncomfortable sharing their grief or loss.

​When I read these kinds of data, my thinking goes straight to these experiences. Sit with that a minute. These data quantify the experiences of real people. My thinking also goes to organizational culture (who is explicitly valued and who is not) and the design of policies and practices to support identity-based differences. As I have said many times before, if your externally-facing work centers racial equity, so should your internal practices.

Race in the Workplace

Follow Understanding with Action

Thought leader john a. powell, frames belonging with a co-creation element, meaning that people have the power to co-create both the spaces they are in and the meaning attached to belonging. I believe what it means to belong varies by person. However, organizational leaders cannot unpack these experiences without first understanding the origins of how staff experiences differ. Here are four steps to guide your planning process.

👉 Ask staff to provide feedback on their experience. Then, most importantly — do something with what you learn. Don’t go from person to person, asking about individual experiences. Equity audits can unpack these experiences.

👉 Acknowledge that the way your organization (company, agency) functions doesn’t work the same for everyone. In my experience, this is one of the hardest realities for executives and organizational leaders to accept. DEI leads; this is where data supports your change management strategies. Here’s why it is a stretch: When we say staff across different identities have different experiences in the same workplace, it is discarding the equality model. Acknowledging differences is a core element of an equity-based framework. I see executives struggle with this hard truth all the time. Now, the meaning we give those differences is another discussion.

👉 Accept that experiences inside your organization likely differ by race, gender, class, role, and other dimensions of identity. The power to change lies in acceptance. Once you believe this truth, the next action becomes how to disrupt old, inequitable organizational patterns. And letting go may also mean letting go of people who are actively harming others. Working from home has been a blessing and a reprieve from harm for many people. These are important considerations if a return to work in an office setting is underway.

👉 Act decisively. Once you understand the root causes of the differences in staff experience, do something about it. I say this at least once a day in my consulting practice: Do not ask for feedback unless you are prepared to take action on what you learn. Those actions could be examining workflows, adopting new policies, shifting practices, or making staffing changes. If your organization (company, agency) wants to live into its racial equity commitments, then create psychological safety to support staff across identities.

As I close out this reflection, I encourage you to create a plan for supporting differences among your staff. I am not talking about more food, fun, and festivals. I am suggesting policy and practice change rooted in the differential experiences of staff. It’s the only pathway to supporting the diversity that so many organizations seek and desperately need. Ask. Acknowledge. Accept. Act.

Remember: Racial equity is not just having the conversation — it is the action you take.

For Helpful Tools 

Check out my posts on:

Is racial equity the latest shiny penny?

Nonprofits, Are you Constantly Losing Staff of Color? Here are 4 Ways to Stop the Churn.


Other resources:

The Unique Impact Of Covid-19 On Working Mothers, Black Women, And Women In Senior Leadership

Microaggressions At The Office can Make Remote Work Even More Appealing

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Author: Joanna Shoffner Scott
Dr. Joanna Shoffner Scott is an experienced management consultant specializing in helping organizations realize their racial equity aspirations. She has consulted with more than 50 organizations in the public and private sectors. Clients and former clients include organizations from workforce development, research, public policy, social services, place-based community sector collaboratives, government agencies, and philanthropies. She is the founder and Principal of Stamey Street Consulting Group. Joanna helps organizations move forward who are stuck in their racial equity journey.

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