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How to be a change agent for diversity, equity and inclusion in your career

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The year 2020 has been fraught with examples of blatant structural inequities and systemic racism. Individuals and organizations alike have been forced to contemplate and reflect on those injustices that have been so clearly illuminated. If there has ever been a time to call on your inner activist, the time is now.

Amid an unprecedented pandemic, anti-Asian racism and the worldwide outrage from the highly publicized deaths of African Americans at the hands of police, students and employees in all industries are now actively organizing around issues of racial equity and demanding employers respond. Organizations of all kinds have scrambled to comply, separate themselves from this injustice and stand in solidarity with what is right. They have raced to write statements, asked for a moment of silence, taken a knee, posted disgust on social media and engaged in antiracism conversations.

But are these organizations really committed? Or are all of these actions just performative allyship? Are these steps taken just so they look good while avoiding the hard work of more significant institutional changes required to address organizational marginalization and exclusion?

In previous articles here and here, I stressed the importance for scholars to demonstrate their commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion and shared the advantages of approaching career exploration through the lens of equity. Nana Lee, director of professional development and mentorship at the University of Toronto, also explained how being an equity-minded scholar can support professional growth. But the commitment to equity and social justice should go both ways. Recent reports have proclaimed that organizations both within the academy and outside it are more concerned about their reputations than true social justice, racial equity and inclusion. As career development professionals, we coach our scholars on ways to strengthen, indicate and articulate their dedication to equity and social justice in a way that is appealing to employers. We would be remiss not to share strategies to uphold our values and also commit to changing inequitable organizations.

Many of the scholars I meet with are understandably discouraged by the lack of commitment from organizations to create an inclusive culture. They have put in the work to demonstrate a commitment to equity but have not seen a return of that commitment from either their current institutions of higher education or the organizations where they seek to work. I have tried to revive their energy and renew their hope by redirecting their focus a bit. Some of the questions we have explored together are:

Most important, can a focus on social justice efforts help scholars remain optimistic, focused and engaged despite the abysmal employment forecast that they face? Can seeking to assist these organizations in actualizing their strategic diversity, equity and social justice goals — even in the quest for employment — be beneficial? When we are engaged, making an impact and helping others, it can increase our own well-being and happiness. As you set out to thoroughly vet the organizations you may work with, how can you remain an active and engaged change agent?

Strategies and Resources

One skill that you have most certainly learned in graduate school is how to do research. Take the time to rigorously examine the organizations where you might want to work. Several organizations rank companies for reputable diverse workplaces and list organizations with the best reputations for inclusivity and diversity. Let’s explore some strategies and resources you can take to be thorough and well balanced in your career exploration process. Hopefully these will empower you and to search for jobs in places that sincerely manifest the inclusive culture that they proclaim.

Public presence and language. As you visit an organization’s website, what are they proclaiming? Do they have a diversity statement and strategic plan? Is their commitment to diversity front and center or buried deep behind multiple clicks?

If diversity statements are present, do they contain clear and actionable steps? Do they explain how initiatives are measured for success? Have they made additional statements in solidarity with movements that are meaningful to you, such as Black Lives Matter, or statements in response to injustice?

What are they saying in their social media posts? Look at the language in their job descriptions. Is it clear that they are committed to equitable hiring practices? Is the language in the job descriptions gendered? Are they intentional about listing available opportunities where marginalized communities will see them? Do they use pronouns in their bios, introductions, on name tags or in Zoom rooms? Are their marketing campaigns well thought out and appealing to marginalized populations? There are serious and costly consequences of marketing mishaps.

Representation and composition. How much diversity is visible throughout the organization? Is attention given to diversity beyond race — including gender, LGBTQ, differently abled? Does the organization have a chief diversity officer?

When reviewing the organizational charts, are the most diverse people at the bottom of the chart or are they evenly distributed throughout the organization? Are BIPOC and women represented at the highest levels of leadership? What about in the organization’s Board of Directors?

Look at the various organizational committees. Is all the diversity on the diversity committee, or is there diverse representation on all committees, such as the budget committee? How many employees of marginalized identities have been with the organization over the long term? Does it have constant turnover, indicating a climate issue? Are there employee resource groups, or ERGs, for minoritized populations? Research shows that ERGs are successful in increasing a sense of belonging.

Indicators of diversity value. How is the organization demonstrating that it values diversity work? Are the salaries of those who do diversity work or lead initiatives to create an inclusive environment commensurate with other leaders’ in the organization? Do they have a title that indicates that the company sees them as a leader? Do they report to the highest level of leadership or given a proportionate amount of top leadership’s time? Are they given the support, resources and professional development to continue their work in excellence? In an interview for the book Strategic Diversity Leadership, the late Frank W. Hale stated so eloquently, “Commitment without currency is counterfeit.” How are the organization’s leaders spending their most precious commodities: time, energy and money?

Activism is the policy or action of using vigorous campaigning to bring about political or social change. As you navigate important questions and do your research on the tangible commitments that such organizations have made, determine what has changed since the summer, at the height of national coverage of COVID-19 and the worldwide uprising of racial injustice. With widespread news, decades-long research and history on the side of antioppression and equity work, if organizations have done nothing more than taken a knee, made a cookie-cutter statement for change and developed hashtags on their social media, you can be sure that this surface-level approach to equity extends deep into their organizational structure as well.

Racial Equity Tools has a comprehensive list of organizational change strategies that can broaden and deepen your understanding of how to establish authentic structures for racial equity and beyond. You can push organizations forward by researching the history of creating social justice and continuing the work of many activists in this country and around the world.

Prospective employee activism. In the current market landscape, the perfect job is probably not going to land in your lap. I encourage you to stay active and engaged in the interview process. If you continue with self-reflection and remain diligent in researching organizations for alignment of your core values, I am hopeful that you will find organizations to submit your applications for employment, even if it is not your dream job.

Then, when you are offered an interview, you can practice asking the hard questions and integrate discussions of activism into the interview process. That can keep you engaged, sharpen your interviewing skills and even provide opportunities to educate organizations and help them to identify blind spots. Just last week, I received a call from a scholar who discussed an article on inclusive job descriptions in her interview that I had shared in a recent workshop. She reported that the interviewers were surprisingly receptive, thanked her for the information and committed to revise the descriptions of future job postings. We have yet to hear if this scholar advanced to the next round of interviews, but either way she left a positive impact on the organization.

That said, this is not a call to interview at companies for the sake of shaking up their inequitable operations. Your time is valuable, and so is theirs. My wish is that you find purposeful and meaningful jobs that encourage accountability, change and authentic DEI work. Keep assessing organizations and interview for jobs that you would seriously consider, with a mind to have difficult conversations when necessary and hold interviewers accountable to what they proclaim. Have compassion throughout the process — no organization is perfect, and some are genuinely searching for employees who can assist them. While there certainly are times that necessitate calling folks out for sake of justice, consider whether it is most appropriate to take on a more nuanced and empathetic approach to calling them in.

In sum, I am inviting you to broaden your perspective of how you think about the career exploration process. The process involves continuing self-evaluation, practicing difficult conversations, honing your interviewing practice, increasing your confidence, educating yourself and others, and advocating for equity and justice. You can plant a seed that might cause leaders and organizations to think and do things differently. Even if you do not get the job, you have made a mark. You have also increased your professional network, and someone from on the other side of the table might reach out to you as other opportunities become available.

Stay encouraged, practice self-care and continue to ground yourself in your social justice principles. Your presence, commitment and energy are valuable. And if it takes a little longer to land a position, stay connected and always remember that you are far more than any job title.

This content was originally published here.

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