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Newsletter Week 43

December 11, 2019

Diversity training can get a bad rap. Sometimes deservingly. We look at the research on what does and doesn’t work. Looking at this week’s Away controversy from a D&I perspective. Tips from eBay’s Chief Diversity Officer. A report on how corporate diversity initiatives are failing black Americans.

This Week in D&I In Practice

Diversity Training: What Does and Doesn’t Work (D&I Original Content)

As diversity training becomes big business, companies need to be informed consumers. In this piece, we look at the academic evidence around what works to change both beliefs and behaviors.

This Week in News and Research

1. Emotional Baggage (The Verge)

Away co-founder and CEO Steph Korey stepped down this week, after a barrage of criticism about toxic company culture. From the leaked Slack messages, it’s hard to argue. Koray refers to an employee as “brain dead,” criticizes individuals by name in public, and goes on rants about “accountability” while handing down punitive consequences.

But for this newsletter, the most interesting part of the story is how Away and Koray made poor choices based on flawed and simplistic beliefs about diversity and inclusion. My observations, from a D&I perspective:

  • The technology and language of inclusion was subverted to enable bad behavior.

Slack was Away’s platform of choice. E-mail was banned and private Slack messages discouraged. This was theoretically meant to improve transparency and make sure everyone, including people from under-represented groups, were always included in the conversation.

But public airing of all problems—coupled with Koray’s belittling tone—led to some employees feeling bullied. And, since research shows that people from diverse backgrounds are penalized more heavily for mistakes, publically assigning blame can harm some people more than others.  “Praise in public, criticize in private” is still the best advice.

  • Safe spaces need to be safe. Or not. Either way, it needs to be clear.

One of the most egregious grievances is the strife that erupted around a “private Slack channel called #Hot-Topics filled with LGBTQ folks and people of color.” Participants thought it was “a safe space where marginalized employees could vent.” Turns out it wasn’t. Six people, including at least one person of color, say they were fired for their comments, which were described as “hateful” and “racist.”

We can’t know exactly what was said, and of course a company needs to shut down inappropriate commentary. But sharing experiences is core to helping employees from under-represented groups feel supported and included in the workplace. If the Slack conversation was becoming too edgy, there were lots of options, including closing the group. Firing seems extreme—especially as a first move, especially if the group was primarily people from under-represented backgrounds.

  • Women in power are still held to higher standards.

Without defending Koray’s behavior, it seems clear that she was facing different expectations than a male CEO might. I agree with Satya Nadella that the day of the “brilliant jerk” should be over. But it’s not. The Steve Jobs archetype—customer-obsessed, perfectionist, chewing up and spitting out people in service of his vision—is firmly embedded in the tech ecosystem’s collective psyche. But that archetype is male.

While many of Koray’s demands and statements are outside the lines, some are what you would expect from a single-minded CEO determined to succeed. Limiting or cancelling leave during the run-up to the holidays in retail, for example, is not uncommon.

As we discussed last week, women leaders are held to higher standards of communal behavior by men and women alike. So was Steph Koray a brilliant jerk at Away? The evidence points to yes. Did she face more criticism, and pay a higher price, than a man in the same position? I think the answer is also yes.

2, Some Hard Conversations We Still Need to Have About True Diversity and Inclusion in the Workplace (Globe and Mail)

Good advice from eBay’s Chief Diversity Officer Damien Hooper-Campbell. He focuses on the importance of co-designing D&I solutions with leadership, providing extensive education to leaders and teams alike, and using ERGs to bring in allies and share the responsibility of creating change them.

3. Study Examines Why Black Americans Remain Scare in Executive Suites (New York Times)

A must-read summary of a must-read report from the Center for Talent Innovation, this piece explores why tactics that are improving representation of white women in the workplace are not working for black Americans of any gender. Perhaps the most depressing finding:

...“very few respondents — including white employees — think that white women are using their power to advocate for other underrepresented groups”

Which brings us full circle to Steph Koray. D&I is complicated--you can be the target of bias and perpetuate bias against other people. 

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