Strengthening Inclusion and Diversity by Fostering a Culture of Empathy

North American businesses spend billions of dollars every year on D&I initiatives, yet many fail to move the needle. Something is missing, and it could be a lack of empathy.
— By Daniel Perez

Billions of dollars are spent on diversity and inclusion (D&I) initiatives and programs. It would be reasonable to expect progress when so much money is spent on diversity education, training, recruiting diverse employees and suppliers, outreaching to communities, and developing a variety of new D&I initiatives to move the needle.

Yet a lack of diversity continues to define many industries, and numerous companies struggle to deal with inclusivity issues, even when they successfully attract diverse employees. They are failing to enjoy the rich creativity and innovation that can flow from D&I, making it impossible to embrace design thinking.

Something is obviously missing, and it is likely empathy. Empathy is the link between bias and understanding the experiences of employees, customers, community members, and diverse suppliers. Empathy is crucial to understanding the problem, questioning assumptions that are often based on biases, and anticipating the implications.

What is in the Message?
Last year, a large company ran an ad that showed a white woman handing a canned drink to a police officer during a protest held by activists concerning police brutality. The company was trying to say that people should come together, but the backlash from the nation’s diverse communities was swift. People saw the ad as exploitive of modern movements looking for answers to social issues, insensitive because it over-simplified a complex issue, ridiculous due to the actors playing protestors acting more like they had joined a party, and insulting because it implied white women rather than diverse women can bring peace and harmony. The ad was pulled within 24 hours, but it had already sent a message to diverse people: This company still lacks empathy for the experiences of its diverse customers and community members.

This example was used because of the obvious implications, but this company is certainly not alone.

Deloitte issued a report in late 2017 that examined Canada’s lack of progress to advance under-represented groups that includes visible minorities, women, people with disabilities, and indigenous people. After years of progress, the corporate world is stuck in neutral. Yet, these companies need to push the impact of their employees in the workplace and the marketplace in response to global competition, demographic changes, and technology.

The executives believe Canada’s diversity is a competitive advantage, but they are also having trouble changing the workplace culture to embrace inclusiveness. Many firms create a one-size-fits-all requirement for advancement, and that clearly demonstrates a lack of empathy for employee experiences that create value. A lack of empathy based on biases is a strong barrier to D&I.

Empathy and Data
Diversity training is important to delivering a message, but it is clearly not having the intended impact. Changing mindsets is very difficult. Leaders must firmly believe in and be able to explain the value of D&I.

Ciara Trinidad was Lever’s head of diversity and inclusion. Lever is a tech-based recruiting software company, and Trinidad was the 12th employee hired, remarkable for a start-up company. She had not worked in Human Resources in previous positions, including at Apple, but had enormous success in building a diverse team of 125 people at Lever. Asked how she was so successful at Lever, her answer was “empathy and data.”

Unfortunately, many diversity initiatives serve more as “lip service,” meaning company leaders have no understanding of what diverse employees can bring to the organization because they do not really understand the differences in the person’s experiences and perspectives, the very things that lead to creativity and innovation.

Trinidad relies heavily on data presented in consolidated form through a dashboard so that stakeholders can easily digest the information and see the truth of the situation. It is how she gets people to understand they have biases and gets them involved in the conversation. Data is used to generate dialogue instead of service as a monologue.

People Behind the Numbers
Empathy is much more than feelings. It concerns the ability of a company to build authenticity in its culture. People must be willing to share their experiences and discuss perspectives with honesty. D&I is not a “program” or “initiative.” It is about people – the single mother, the recent immigrant from India, the LGBT community member, the visible minority from China, or the member of the Inuit indigenous community

Empathy concerns the ability to put yourself in another person’s shoes and to share their feelings. It is not an easy thing to do when a workforce and the marketplace grow more diverse by the day, and it means people must be willing to “be their authentic selves.” A critical requirement is that the employer is supportive of individuality. Hiring people with different cultural backgrounds, skin colors, nationalities and so on does not create a diverse culture when the culture is not inclusive.

When leadership sees people only through their lens of biases, the pressure is on conformity rather than individuality. An empathetic culture encourages a sense of belonging and individuality, and that is the key to innovation.

Design thinking only works well when people are empathetic because empathy is what enables people to view and analyze problems and solutions from diverse perspectives. Empathy means understanding people's motivations, experiences and thoughts. It is easy to see how this can lead to innovative product designs, higher quality customer services, more effective outreach to communities, and improved marketing to targeted groups. Marketers have the data analytics, but developing an understanding of the people behind the numbers makes it much more likely marketing campaigns will connect and move people.

Leading With Understanding Rather Than Bias
Design thinking is human-centred, so empathy is one of the most important elements.

Developing an empathetic corporate culture creates a workplace where leaders do not view their work relationships and interactions through personal biases. This leads to more thoughtful conversations and decisions, and employees who feel more valued. It also encourages innovation because an empathetic culture is one where people feel trusted. Trust promotes collaboration, and a willingness to learn and share new perspectives.

It is quite possible that D&I initiatives are not producing the desired results because they are lacking one critical element – empathy.