In the U.S. and Germany (both my homes), it is Black History Month and this month, my goal is to continue reflecting on ways to change workplaces that don't work for everyone.
When reflecting on my own experience as a Black American woman, so much of my life experience is privileged. Just the idea that I, a Black woman from the rural American South, was able to move to Germany and make the transition from an American corporate workplace to a German corporate workplace, without needing to learn the German language and without needing to ‘start over’ in my career, goes to show how nuanced privilege can be.
But when I look at some of the issues faced in the workplace for Black people in America and Black people in Germany, I see some of the same problems, namely the lack of Black and other People of Color in Senior Leadership roles. Although tech startups are booming right here in Berlin and the need for a diverse set of experiences included at the top are needed to create a strong business, the profile of the majority of founders and Senior Leaders is still almost identical.
In a world where technology is developed at what seems like an infinite rate, our options are vaster than ever, so diverse talent included in Senior Leadership to build products and provide services creates a more rich and connected employee and customer experience. But in the workplace system, as in social and political systems, there are flaws, allowing one group of people to emerge as dominant. A dominant group has power and privileges that control the value system and rewards in that particular system. Wherever there is a dominant group (not necessarily the majority), they build the system, run the system, and the system benefits themselves and those who fit their profile. It’s how humans in many places operate in macro and micro terms, which means the behavior could be described as typical, but the effect is far from benign.
The individuals who don’t fit the profile in that system begin to mold into a shape that isn’t their own to contribute their skills. Talented people subdue their authenticity to fit in. When that happens, we lose the richness of the diversity of the individual that we so desperately need in our workplaces. By the time they may be up for the senior promotion (which is rare), they have worked hard to be more like the dominant group profile than themselves.
Our workplaces need to change to send the message that no one has to mold themselves into a model to be valued and that development and leadership are not only for a select few who are more alike than different.
But how do we change the workplace system to send that message? I think we start with the basics of dignity and build our systems, programs, policies, and processes from there. Anywhere along our journey, when we interact with human beings (advertising to customers, providing customer service, giving feedback to employees, working in teams), we include as many voices as needed to ensure we have considered the best way to value, respect, and treat that person or group of people ethically.
Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Belonging (DEIB) fits perfectly into a system built on dignity. This work becomes the next stepping stone, codifying dignity and ensuring all experiences are respected and included in the system at different job levels and across functions.
Building systems based on dignity also allows us to create clear values with the corresponding behaviors (with accountability) so DEIB work is not superficial or in vain. If we say we respect you, we learn how to pronounce the names of our colleagues correctly. If we say we value you, we don’t build systems that lack transparency which helps to create inequities. If we treat everyone ethically, we don’t make or sell products that are culturally appropriated.
Someone once said to me that when you are the person in the room that people listen to, you have the power at that moment, which means it is your job to adjust to your audience. That is because the person with the most power or influence in the room sets the tone. For anyone in that position, that tone should be rooted in dignity. That tone should be about including others and opening your mind and heart to learn how your behavior impacts the people you influence. And when people see you embracing who they are and what they represent and not rewarding those who fit themselves into tiny boxes to be like you, you become a leader that is changing a system and you help develop others into leaders that do the same.
Black History Month focuses on the Black experience and highlights the unique and singular experiences of a resilient group of people. It is also about embracing all humans to enrich the world, and how dignity for all humans everywhere changes the systems we operate in.
I am striving to transform workplaces into systems full of dignity for everyone. Won’t you join me?