Blog Post

Empowering Inclusive Workplaces Starts with You—Here’s Why

By Subha Barry
May 16, 2022

Last month, I had the great privilege of joining my friend Wendi Safstrom, President of the SHRM Foundation, on the main stage at SHRM (Society for Human Resource Management) Talent Conference & Expo 2022 in Denver to discuss how to embed inclusion into workplace culture. During our conversation, we talked about how using data can inform, how allyship can inspire, and how building trust can help employers and employees build better, more inclusive workplaces. Each and every one of us has the ability to help others, to speak out against injustice or unfairness. More simply put, to be an ally. We are all responsible for creating cultures of inclusion and belonging, whether it’s in our place of work or within our own communities. It ultimately starts with us. Here are my key takeaways:

Data Will Help Form Your DEI Strategy

As an organization, creating knowledge around where you are on your DEI journey starts with data. Otherwise, it becomes opinion that forms the foundational bedrock. Data is an objective, nonpartisan way to take a look at what’s going on within your organization. For over 40 years, we’ve been collecting data from organizations working to build inclusive cultures. We do this by measuring the policies and procedures that promote equal representation at every level of the organization.

Without foundational data, companies wouldn’t be able to improve their demographics, workplace culture, policies and benefits, and more. It gives organizations a nuanced way to collect information about what gaps and opportunities may exist, and by evaluating a company’s data, year over year, it provides a stepping-stone in aspiring to do better.

Allyship Creates a True Sense of Belonging

Recently, I’ve been speaking a lot about the notion of intersectional allyship. Intersectionality is the way that various factors of our identities intersect to form unique experiences and strengths. It’s important for all employees, no matter where they are on their career journey, to understand the concept of stepping up for others as a champion, ally, or ambassador; what it means; and how we are all accountable for making it work. And here’s the thing: you can’t only ally with people who look just like you. That’s the easiest thing to do, and I am guilty of it myself. If I walk into a room and see a South Asian woman, I immediately gravitate toward her. It’s human nature. But think about the possibilities if we consciously sought out someone who didn’t look like us. The possibilities are endless.

It’s also about standing up for something or to someone if it’s the right thing to do.

Leadership can infuse an essence and spirit of DEI by creating a safe space for individuals to speak up when they see an injustice. If you ask people if they have a pronounced sense of fairness and justice, I would wager that everyone would raise their hand, indicating that they do. But how many of them would have the courage to stand up to their peers and call out when they see something that’s just not fair or right?

When you combine the two ideas, allyship can be an extremely powerful thing. I think that a key component of leadership is being able to exercise that muscle and learn how to be a strong ally. If everyone in an organization can be empowered to speak up and out, and your leader actually leads with that, can you imagine what the outcome could be?

Building Trust Creates the Bedrock of Relationship

When I was in my early 30s, I was a wealth advisor at Merrill Lynch, and I became one of the top 100 advisors out of 16,000. I was the only non-White woman in that elite group. There were no role models or mentors who pointed out the potholes and no one to guide me on how to build relationship capital or leverage it at the right times. Back then, it was a bit of a “good ol’ boys” club, and I often felt that there wasn’t a place for me.

I was an immigrant woman, with a pronounced accent and frizzy hair, who couldn’t afford trendy clothes and knew very little about pop culture. On all counts, I did not fit the bill. But I found success by outworking most of my colleagues and was relentless in my pursuit of the American Dream.

At that time, I had a branch manager who was a member of this “good ol’ boys club.” Frankly, I didn’t like him. And I certainly didn’t trust him. Then, something happened to dramatically change our relationship. In 1997, at the age of 35, I had my first of six bouts of Hodgkin’s lymphoma cancer. When I was in the hospital, he stopped in to see me every day. I was baffled and asked, “What are you doing here?” He replied: “I have a son your age, and if this were to happen to him, I would be devastated. I’m here to support you through this.”

Who was this man? Was he the “good ol’ boy” I always thought him to be? Or was he the empathetic and supportive manager and boss? The reality was that he was both. As time went by, he supported me every step of the way and became a dear friend. Our families vacationed together. We supported each other through the many ups and downs in life, and when he died two years ago, his wife chose me to give the eulogy at his funeral.

We are often quick to make judgments about people based on our interactions with them. We see in them what we want to and discard any other part of them that does not fit our narrative. 

How many people do we discard in our lives due to a lack of trust or a snap judgement? We need to give each other a chance, look for the good that’s out in the world, and ultimately pay it forward. This has certainly shaped my outlook throughout my career, and as a result, I’ve mentored hundreds of women and people of color. Mentors and sponsors can come from unlikely places, so it’s important to keep an open mind and be willing to trust.

What Mentorship/Sponsorship Programs Could Look Like with a Small HR Department

Unfortunately, like sponsors like. I was a firm believer that sponsorship needed to happen organically. But the data told a different story. The data said that sponsors gravitated toward those who went to the same university or who were the same gender, race, etc.—in other words, those who were like them. Who gets left behind? Those from underrepresented groups.

One way to change this is to ask senior leaders to host regular coffees or lunches with people who are interested in mentorship and sponsorship programs. At these regular gatherings, each person can speak about themselves for 10 minutes, talking about what makes them effective employees/colleagues and what they are challenged by. And these “elevator pitches” would cause the senior leaders to connect with these individuals by finding things they have in common. It was extremely organic. This is a great example of an effective approach that could take place in a smaller organization. HR needs to be an important part of this. They would partner with senior leaders on how to conduct these meetings and themselves, and they would work with employees to build self-awareness in a powerful and effective way.

Fairness, justice, and trust can serve as the cornerstone in creating inclusive workplaces. Data can help inform your strategy, but ultimately it starts with you—your ability to be thoughtful and courageous. Ask yourself how you can step up and play a role in changing the status quo by infusing a culture of allyship into your corporation.

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About the Author

Subha V. Barry
Subha Barry