Lauren Tucker, Ph. D., shares how leaders who start with inclusion as their guiding principle rather than a numeric diversity target are more likely to find success.
For all the progress the industry has tried to make in the last year on diversity, equity and inclusion (DE&I), the numbers aren’t great.
In a report earlier this year from the Diversity Action Alliance (DAA), 78% of the PR and communications industry is white, and 93% of top comms leaders (CCOs, agency CEOs, and executive directors) are white. When asked if they had a chief diversity officer, 73% of organizations surveyed said “No.”
While this accounting of diverse employee numbers is important in revealing the state of play in the industry, these numbers don’t tell PR pros how to get to the next step. How do we change the industry to make it more welcoming of diverse employees?
The answer, according to DE&I expert Lauren Tucker, starts with “I”: inclusion.
“We get impact by focusing on the operations and efficiencies that allow exclusion and bias to thrive in organizations,” she explains, sharing how her organization Do What Matters helps teams fight inequality in the workplace. “When we think about inclusion first, we think about that in comparison to diversity first or diversity management.”
Tucker explains that when an organization starts with diversity rather than inclusion, it tends to lead to unhelpful navel-gazing that fails to address the challenges businesses face in a multicultural global economy.
“A global strategy is going to help lead future innovation and growth by focusing on making sure that everybody in an organization can live up to their fullest potential and that they feel safe, heard and valued,” she says. “And then when you do that, you also then move toward impact on equity and then ultimately diversity and greater representation.”
Moving from problem to opportunity
For leaders, there’s a real benefit in starting with inclusion rather than diversity. “Diversity first often looks like a problem that we have to solve,” explains Tucker. Leaders are likely to say: “You know, we’ve got a diversity problem.”
Instead, an inclusion-first lens offers opportunity. “There’s an opportunity to get the right people doing the right work, continuously elevating their relevant differences,” Tucker says.
And this framing can change everything for leaders trying to make a difference for their organization. Where diversity is often transactional, inclusion is transformational.
Tucker describes transactional DE&I practices as the search for a chief diversity officer or other diversity hire. It typically has an HR focus and is connected to a checklist—the proverbial “ticking the box” that has been derided as unsuccessful in making a real difference on DE&I.
Instead of focusing on compliance, Tucker advocates for seeking transformation and eliminating operational efficiencies that are holding back your creativity and growth.
Where to start
Tucker recommends beginning with defining your inclusion strategy and establishing how that maps onto organizational strategy. Tucker gives the example of her client, The Martin Agency, which has rolled inclusion into its organizational raison d’être—which it defines as “fighting invisibility.”
“They fight in visibility internally as their inclusion strategy,” explains Tucker, “meaning they want to make sure everybody feels safe, heard, and feels that they are valued as contributors within the organization … but also they want their work to fight in visibility for their clients.”
For PR agencies in particular, the fight for inclusion and representation is easy to link to purpose and core values. And that link to what Tucker calls the “operational strategy” of the agency is essential; it’s how inclusion becomes tied to business goals and outcomes, rather than being a pet project for a dedicated employee.
The ability for the whole organizations to own the DE&I mission is also crucial, since employees—including chief diversity officers—leave.
“It’s great to have a CEO or COO or chief talent officer or the HR director be excited and a real ally or champion of diversity,” explains Tucker, but if that person leaves, then what happens? If it’s not integrated into the operational strategy and structures and processes of the company, when that person leaves, the campaign to drive DE&I could falter—or completely disappear.
The hiring process
Much of the focus in recent months from DE&I leaders has been on the hiring process. And while Tucker says that the hiring process is an important component of inclusion work, it’s not the whole ballgame.
When hiring, it’s important to remove as much bias as possible from the process—largely by eliminating individual decision-making. “We can eliminate blind spots with the processes,” says Tucker. “We can’t eliminate blind spots in individuals.”
It’s also crucial to push back on what Tucker calls the “tyranny of the urgent.”
“When we’re facing the tyranny of the urgent, we tend to kind of fall back on our primary blind spots, which are comfort, familiarity,” she says. “That means we typically hire people, hire people that look like us, that you like the us, they came from the same places.”
Hiring panels are a helpful tool to ensure that individual biases are reduced in the hiring process. Then these same processes are applied to current employees looking to move up through the organization. While internal candidates for an opening in leadership roles might have their fans and supporters in the organization, it’s important to put them through the same process as you would an outside hire.
“Make them go through telling the organization how they would solve or address challenges in the organization at that next level,” says Tucker. Internal candidates might have an advantage in knowing the issues facing their organization more intimately than an external candidate due to their work history, but through a blind assessment Tucker says, these candidates should shine through rather than relying on relationships with decision makers.
A unique problem for agencies
Tucker argues that PR agencies and firms have a unique challenge facing them on the DE&I front, caused by years of failing to care for employees.
“At the heart of the operational inefficiency in the industry is a lack of really understanding how to care for, how to nurture, how to manage talent,” she says. “And as a result, we see people fleeing the industry; they’re going elsewhere.”
Whether employees are looking to move in-house with brands, jump into consulting firms like Deloitte, or leave the industry altogether, the talent drain is a big problem for agencies. “The chickens are coming home to roost because the industry has not changed,” says Tucker of the employee exodus being seen by some firms.
In Tucker’s view, the industry must wake up—and find a way to show the love to employees who have more options than ever before to find audiences and express their creativity.
“There’s such great talent out there that they can so easily exhibit their creative passions, their talents, and, you know, their ambitions.,” she says. “And we ignore that in the industry to our peril.”
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