Martin hadn’t given up trying to have his question heard. He looked angry and was waving his arms around to catch our attention. The others online just shook their heads in exasperation and tutted.
This was my first interaction with the diversity & inclusion (D&I) network at Barclays. All those who I had spoken to before the call were women, most of them women of colour. They were smart, passionate and articulate about D&I at the bank.
I asked why they were ignoring Martin. They couldn’t believe I was asking about him. One said, “He’s a trouble maker and doesn’t buy into D&I, he just turns up to the sessions and causes problems.” Martin was shouting but had been ‘muted’. I asked if I could speak with him.
He was so annoyed that he was not making much sense. I managed to calm him down and he eventually spluttered out, “We are being marginalised, us white men are being removed and replaced. Nobody talks about us and nobody talks to us – this is discrimination.”
Again, my colleagues all shook their heads and one of them said, “It’s just not helpful.” However, having been listened to, Martin now gathered his thoughts and shared that many of his white male colleagues felt the same way, but didn’t think it was safe or politically correct to speak up. “This has led to a growing resentment, and they are becoming dangerously disillusioned about D&I.”
Martin was now relishing the fact that he had been listened to. He was at ease and had some really good ideas on how they might re-engage with the disenfranchised white men.
We must never forget that a friendly smile can go a long way and is where inclusion usually starts. To everyone’s credit, Martin has become an important mainstay of the D&I network at the bank.
I have seen a similar issue with ‘incumbents’ everywhere we have worked. We have had to ensure that we included the ‘engineers’ at Microsoft and at Google. They have been long revered and admired, maybe to the exclusion of others, but that is not their fault. Now some are feeling threatened because of the D&I initiatives that are being pushed across both businesses.
At TJX (the mother ship of TK Maxx), we saw the same thing with women who had become the majority of middle and senior management. After a concerted and successful effort to level the playing field when it came to gender, a new, broader push for D&I was producing some understandable defensive attitudes.
We must never underestimate the fear that exclusion and isolation bring, even if you are part of the majority. Inclusion means precisely that: we have to go out of our way to ensure that every voice is heard, nobody feels excluded and all contributions are valued.
The effects can be powerful. Whilst working on a Black Lives Matter inspired inclusion initiative at Unite Students, we had about 25 colleagues of all different levels on a Teams call. I tried to create a psychologically safe space, where everyone felt secure enough to speak up and speak out. Four or five of the more extroverted members on the call were helpfully pushing things along. It was friendly, and gradually more and more joined in. I had a couple of tricky and provocative issues to raise and I was soon feeling confident that we would get there.
Somewhat out of the blue, one of the more reserved young men on the session unmuted himself and cleared his throat. He had the warmest and most engaging of smiles but had not yet spoken. He coughed again, and said softly, “I just feel so comfortable and secure that I want to share something with all of you.”
I instantly responded with a smile and said “of course”. He then asked me whether I knew what he was going to say. I responded “Maybe you’re struggling to be who you really want to be at work?”
His eyes lit up, and he nodded and said, “Yes, that’s it. Ladies and gentlemen, I have worked with you for some time and I just feel so safe with you today that I would like to share that I’m gay.”
He kept smiling but had stopped speaking. There were tears of joy on that call. Despite us all being in different locations and only connected online, we all virtually ‘hugged him’ and felt part of something very special.
We had proved that we can still offer camaraderie and compassion via digital platforms. The power of the optimists will always overcome the negativity of the cynics, and none of those present will ever forget the privilege of being there and having helped to create such a magical moment.
Martin moved us to see that diversity is mixing it up, and our colleague at Unite Students demonstrated that inclusion is making the mix brilliant. We had intended to focus on some complex and intricate issues around race, but the lesson for all of us is that inclusion means including absolutely everyone.
Image courtesy of René Carayol