Fully Supported hands in a all in team huddle
Wednesday, December 9, 2020
By Jennifer Wagner

According to a yearly Glassdoor employment survey, over three-quarters of U.S. employees claim they work within a diverse workforce. Such diversity, say experts, can drive innovation and increase revenue. And a workforce that includes people from a variety of backgrounds and experiences helps a company develop products for a more diversified customer base.   

Yet the reality can be messy.

Calls for societal change from people of color around the country have created ripple effects in workplaces big and small. The Black Lives Matter movement in particular has provided new impetus for managers to invigorate positive connections with employees who come from different racial and cultural backgrounds and may be experiencing hurt and loss in ways that require special support.

Beth Livingston, assistant professor of Management and Entrepreneurship, studies diversity and inclusion within U.S. companies. She focuses on troubleshooting workplace environments that leave Black, indigenous, and other people of color feeling unsupported and unable to forge authentic, trusting relationships. She offers the following evidence-based recommendations for fostering a more supportive workplace environment:

  1. Start with yourself. “Managers need to do the work and model the behavior they want to see regarding inclusion, empathy, authenticity, support, and interdependence. Others will see that it pays off,” said Livingston. She suggests that managers seek out cultural competency training and resources and begin putting that learning into practice.  
  2. Check your defensiveness at the door. Most people have the best intentions, but there is a big difference between intention and impact. When confronted with a misstep—such as a microaggression—your response is critical. “Managers should get more comfortable saying things like: ‘Oh my gosh, I’m sorry.’ Or: ‘Let’s not do that anymore.’ People will screw up. Managers will screw up. We can beat ourselves up about it, or we can apologize and be thoughtful about the misstep and practice better behaviors for next time,” said Livingston. “Being demonstratively open to growth will show others they can change too.”  
  3. Proactively work to build trust. “I believe most managers genuinely want to do right by all their employees. But how do you get over the fear of making a wrong step? That is why we call it risk taking,” said Livingston. “Show your employees that you are willing to be vulnerable.” Fear of saying or doing the wrong thing often holds people back from building trusting relationships that can weather mistakes when they happen. “When you truly and authentically connect with people, you have trust and empathy. You can make mistakes, but there is still trust.”
  4. Broaden empathy: When an employee has recently added an infant to their household or is caring for an aging relative, empathetic managers and coworkers routinely ask after their sleep and their emotional well-being. Managers, particularly those who are white, need to broaden their empathy to encompass experiences and events that uniquely impact people of color, says Livingston. “There are so many Black and Hispanic men and women in organizations right now who do not feel like their workplace is supportive. Many are really hurting and say their feelings are not being acknowledged." Although it has not been as common to acknowledge this reality as it is to acknowledge medical or familial difficulties, doing so is a first step for white managers and coworkers to understand and empathize with employees from diverse backgrounds. “Pretending it does not exist does not make it better–the absence of doing something is not neutral,” said Livingston. “Not doing something is doing something.”
  5. Be open to revising systems: Procedures are designed to make work as efficient as possible, said Livingston. “However, we need to be open to asking ‘Why is that important? Is that really what makes this particular employee perform well?’” As more organizations move to a more team-based approach to work, Livingston also recommends making sure that performance evaluation systems do not hold people of color disproportionately responsible for joint or interdependent work.
  6. Hold yourself and others accountable to improving diversity metrics. “With diversity and inclusion metrics, people are rarely held accountable for making sure those numbers are met,” said Livingston. Actions and results reflect individual and corporate values. “People are innovative and creative with things they care about–so if this is truly your value, you will find a way.”

Assistant Professor of Management and Entrepreneurship Beth Livingston recalls the moment she started recognizing how, as a young professional woman, she was treated differently in the workplace. “Because of the way I looked, I was treated like a lightweight!” she recalls. “My way of dealing with that discrimination was to learn more about those behaviors and how to fix them.” Livingston started by getting her MBA from the University of Kentucky, and then followed with a Ph.D. from the University of Florida in Management and Organizational Behavior. Today, she makes diversity and inclusion her focus in both her research and the classroom. This article first appeared in the winter 2021 issue of  Tippie Magazine