Employee resource groups aren’t the answer, but they’re a first step

Why employee resource groups are important for building a great company culture but they’re not enough.

Employee resource groups aren't the answer, but they're a first stepDiversity and inclusion is a process. To achieve diversity and inclusion, it’s not enough to hire diverse candidates. Once hired, we must be welcomed by a safe and belonging culture, and our diverse perspectives must be honored by our coworkers.

Too many times we are approached by well-meaning companies eager to hire diverse candidates, only to look behind the curtain and discover a company culture where we will not feel safe to be ourselves, and where our perspectives will be ignored. Why would we choose to stay in such an environment? These are the companies where diverse employees leave just as quickly as they join.

Employee Resource Groups (ERGs) are an essential part of diversity and inclusion, especially as companies grow larger. Before being heard, or trying to change someone’s mind, you need to feel safe.

ERGs serve as a safe haven for those with perspectives and experiences that are “diverse” compared to the company as a whole. They are a place to share stories, particular plights, and are a source of stress relief. A place where we can safely show up fully as ourselves, even if at a particular event (like a movie night) no words about these subjects are ever spoken. Even small groups that give the sense of “you belong here” are very much needed and important for building a strong employee community. Having a sense of “I am safe,” “I belong,” “someone else understands my truth” should be established before any of the other steps. That’s where Afroflare comes in here at Cloudflare.

Employee resource groups aren't the answer, but they're a first step

But ERGs alone are not enough. They do not help us to feel welcome in a team sync when we are the only person of color. They do not help us feel heard when we are the only diverse perspective in a meeting. Our perspectives need to be incorporated in products, culture, and employee processes — a result which we can call integration. Without integration, a company will not be able to retain these perspectives. So how does integration start? I believe, it starts with empathy.

Numerous articles have been written about empathy, diversity, and inclusion. Empathy, by which I mean understanding the struggles of worldly differences, is hard to do in a work setting: understanding the struggle of Jim Crow America, or being a first generation immigrant, or how the person you choose to love outside of work can affect your standing in the job market. Some of these struggles have been ingrained into the culture of a people for generations, as familiar to them as apple pie, and yet those experiences are completely unfamiliar to others of us. So what are we to do?

In Brene Brown’s book Dare to Lead, she talks about empathy in a very nuanced way. When I read this section, it had a profound effect on me. And though I encourage you to read the whole book, here is the key idea:

We see the world through a set of unique lenses that bring together who we are, where we come from, and our vast experiences. … One of the signature mistakes with empathy is that we believe we can take our lenses off and look through the lenses of someone else. We can’t. Our lenses are soldered to who we are. What we can do, however, is honor people’s perspectives as truth even when they’re different from ours. 1

Getting a seat at the table and mustering the courage to share a new perspective is challenging. Mustering the courage to share when it’s likely that your truth will not be honored because you are the only voice with that perspective is virtually impossible within today’s pervasive “data-driven” culture. Having more than one voice to “second” a thought, to value it, gives it more weight than the one lone voice that can so easily be written off as an outlier or a fluke. I’m never going to be able to count on having a second black, straight, cisgender woman from Baltimore in every discussion. More numbers are not the solution. Honoring people’s perspectives as truth even when they’re different from ours is hard to do for all of us. But unless we each do so for one another, none of our individuality can contribute to our work.

This doesn’t often happen bottom-up. All the employees at a company don’t spontaneously decide to honor each other’s truths, and only hire those who do the same. It has to come from the top and it has to be a conscious decision.

This leads me back to why Afroflare (Cloudflare’s ERG for people of color) and other ERGs like it are so important. They are the first step towards integration, providing that sense of safety and belonging. Combined with leadership that values this specific kind of empathy, we can create a culture where diversity has the safety it needs to speak up, and the ears needed to be heard. We’re not perfect, no company is, but Cloudflare is consistently making efforts to improve and become a more inclusive workplace for all, starting from our founders down. And, Cloudflare is aware of its duty to shed light on our diversity efforts, and speak up about how we’re going to create lasting change in the world by building a better Internet for all.

Empathy is great if you can do it. I urge the readers of this blog to simply honor the diverse perspectives of others as truth equally alongside their own. We’d all really win if we consider differing perspectives equally, regardless of the majority opinion, as we are hiring and creating solutions, products, and features. It is only then that our workplaces will begin to reflect the true diversity of the world we live in.


Footnote

[1] Brown Brené. Dare to Lead: Brave Work, Tough Conversations, Whole Hearts. Random House, 2018.
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