Why Diversity and Inclusion are Just the Beginning: An Interview with Anne Tomkinson

Although diversity and inclusion are a regular part of workplace vocabulary and a focal point of companies across the country, these two focus areas are just the beginning. Our guest, Anne Tomkinson, takes us on a journey beyond diversity and inclusion to belonging - a place where we all can bring our fullest selves.

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Imagine you’re on Oprah’s couch. She starts, “Our next guest is Anne Tomkinson. She...”. Finish Oprah’s glowing introduction of you.

I have long been interested in equity and justice issues. I am on the board of a non-profit organization, Little Lights Urban Ministries, that works with children and families living in public housing in Southeast DC. These families are predominantly African-American, and one of our core values, part of our mission statement, is racial reconciliation.

The issues that affect children and families living in poverty are often impacted by race. So I’ve been passionate about justice and equity for a long time. That interest meshes beautifully with my love of HR.

In HR, we have so much opportunity to impact the lives of employees – creating spaces where people can be their authentic selves and truly be engaged in their work.

I believe that everyone, no matter what their role is in an organization, can have a sense of ownership and know they are making a real contribution. There’s such dignity in that, and HR has a key role in making that happen. I know that I’m fortunate to be in a career that has such impact. And when you combine a love for HR and passion for equity and justice, you get someone who takes issues of diversity, equity and inclusion pretty seriously. 

You recently wrote an article called, “Let’s Get This Party Started,” where you discussed some of the challenges and opportunities around diversity and inclusion. We loved the article and we’re hoping to continue the conversation here. Let’s start with Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) - the catalyst for your article. SHRM is a big deal in the HR world. Would non-HR folks benefit from what SHRM has to offer?

SHRM is a tremendous resource. HR is a complex field. There is the legal aspect of making sure that companies are compliant, and that you are doing right by your staff. There’s the nuts and bolts of things like compensation and benefits, and let’s face it – no matter how much we love our job and how engaged we are, everyone is still looking for a paycheck. Beyond those things, HR can partner with the overall business goals and help drive businesses forward.

SHRM helps make all of that happen. They are an active voice and trusted resource for lawmakers and business owners.

If you are an HR professional, the resources available, including certification, are tremendous. If you are a business owner or leader, knowing what SHRM has to offer can make your business better. For employees, SHRM is there behind the scenes making your HR departments stronger for you. 
 
For decades, diversity and inclusion have been a focus in the workplace. Unfortunately, workforce studies still show a lack of diversity, especially in leadership positions. In your article, you mentioned this lack of progress. What factors have contributed to the slow pace of results?
 
The issues around diversity and inclusion are incredibly complex.

There is the one-on-one relational aspect, where people tend to surround themselves with others who are like them, because it’s comfortable. Then there are systemic and institutional issues that are much harder to break down. There has been a lot of talk and effort to break down these systems, but in the end, good intentions aren’t enough.

One of the things that James Wright said at the SHRM D&I conference is that a white sounding name is worth 8 years of experience on a resume. Think about that for a minute. How is that even possible?

Most hiring managers aren’t thinking ‘oh, that non-white person isn’t capable’ on a conscious level. But what experiences, what media images, what unconscious factors, are making this happen? And that is only one small example. These are incredibly uncomfortable truths, and I think the unwillingness to be uncomfortable is at the heart of this slow pace.

We want things to change, but we all know that change is painful. So we keep backing off of the things that don’t feel good or come easy. 
 
There is a push to move from focusing on diversity to a focus on inclusion because, as you recounted hearing repeatedly, “diversity is a fact and inclusion is a choice.” That being said, are “12 white, blue-eyed, blonde men in a room” diverse?
 
This is a trick question, like ‘when did you stop beating your wife?’. Certainly, everyone is unique and brings their own story to every interaction, so any 12 people you bring together will be diverse from that standpoint. And the description of 12 white, blue-eyed, blond men doesn’t address some of the more obvious things we think about when it comes to diversity. Are they diverse generationally? Socioeconomically? Are they all straight, cisgender men?

You can have diversity from those aspects as well. But where are the women? And in America today, you can’t talk about diversity without talking about race. In fact, race is often the elephant in the room.

We use ‘diversity’ as code for oblique conversations when what we really mean is that people of color are not included in our businesses, especially the higher up the ladder you go. If they do show up, they are expected to assimilate and act ‘like us’, with us being the white majority, mostly men, around whose privilege the corporate world has traditionally revolved.

While it’s true that there would be some level of diversity in your 12 man example, it wouldn’t be the kind of diversity that the American workplace needs today. Those 12 men wouldn’t represent your customers or other stakeholders, and wouldn’t be able to bring the full diversity of thought that drives dynamic innovation. 

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The next focus, after diversity and inclusion, is belonging. Your quote perfectly describes these concepts and how they mesh: “If diversity is being invited to the party and inclusion is being asked onto the dance floor, belonging is having my music playing.” The part about having music that fits the dancers brings to mind the desire for “culture fit.” Culture fit says if you don’t like “our music,” maybe this isn’t your dance. Can the need for inclusion and belonging, and the desire for “culture fit” play nicely?

Oh how I wish I could take credit for that quote! I heard it in several iterations during the SHRM D&I conference, so I can’t even attribute it to one brilliant person. But that quote really spoke to me, and I’ve been sharing it with everyone and rethinking what belonging looks like.

Often, ‘culture fit’ has been used to mean ‘folks just like us’, but Mary Ila Ward presented on hiring for fit and diversity and challenged that it’s not an either or. She suggested that we think of ‘culture fit’ in terms of our values. So if one of your company values is innovation, probe candidates for a willingness to take risks and try new things. There’s nothing about that to clash with creating a diverse and inclusive environment.

People who innovate don’t have to like the same music! This is true with all of your company’s values.

In a recent #nextchat, the weekly HR Twitter chat hosted by SHRM, someone said that instead of looking for a ‘good fit’, we should be looking for someone who will challenge us. By looking for employees who share our values but listen to different music, who come from different backgrounds, who look at the world with a different perspective, we can get that ‘culture fit’ and still get the diversity we need and want. 
 
How can organizations get more people on the dance floor?
 
One thing that I believe is important is that we need to drive the change. We need to start playing music that is attractive to everyone, not just the folks already at the dance. By we I mean the organization, I mean HR, and I mean the majority culture.

In another blog post I wrote before attending the conference, I talked about intersectionality, and that as a white, middle-class, able-bodied, straight, cisgender woman, I come out pretty high in the privilege sweepstakes. So I’m talking about my own personal responsibility. I’m also an HR professional, so regardless of intersectionality and privilege, I have a professional responsibility to any organization I work with. I also think that organizations themselves need to commit here.

Listen to women in male dominated spaces, listen to people of color who are breaking into white spaces, and you’ll hear how exhausting it is to be ‘the one’. To be the representative for everyone of your race or gender. Add intersectionality to that and it becomes even more exhausting – try being a person of color who has a disability, or is LGBTQ+. Or both!

This is a long way of saying that if we truly want everyone to belong, we have to play their music before they even get to the dance.

How can we, especially HR, make our spaces safe, comfortable, and inclusive now, rather than making employees do all the work of teaching us once they are here? Because our employees show up wanting to do a good job and be successful in an inclusive environment. They don’t want or deserve the extra work of educating us on inclusiveness. 
 
How about getting the right music playing? You say, “Maybe one reason that our conversations haven’t solved the problem lies with who is controlling the conversations.” Are these people also controlling the music? And how do we get a better DJ? 
 
I do believe that ‘we’, meaning majority culture and institutions, have been controlling the conversation. One reason that all of our diversity work hasn’t gotten us very far is that we’ve been saying ‘everyone is welcome’ but we mean everyone is welcome if they’ll act like us once they get here. Like our music, think like us.

When I was growing up, America was commonly described as a melting pot. The idea was that everyone comes here from someplace else, but mixes together and becomes ‘American’.

But who defined America? European-American white men. Everyone else’s experience was different or other. I think that it’s the same in our organizations.

We want to make our companies melting pots, rather than celebrate the diversity that each employee brings. That’s the danger of hiring for culture fit without carefully defining what it should be. It takes a lot of humility to be able to say ‘I’ve only been playing my music – what other music is out there?’ and be willing to play a song you don’t know.

But I’m hopeful. I think that there are a lot of people out there with really good intentions. They need more education, and we have to continue to have difficult and uncomfortable conversations until they are willing to step aside and let someone else do the DJing.

This is where HR can play such a big part, educating and offering solutions and suggestions. One of the things I loved at the D&I conference was Bernard Coleman III’s talk on micro-inclusions. These are small ways of offering inclusion, the opposite of micro-aggressions. These are things we all can look for and practice, and they can add up to a big effect. That’s the kind of work that will lead to a new DJ and diverse music. 

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You closed your article with, “We won’t rest until everyone is out on the dance floor, and the playlist reflects every dancer.” What did you mean by “playlist?”
 
I’m sure I’ve overused this metaphor by now, but if we want everyone to feel comfortable and belong, then everyone needs to hear their music playing. There can’t be one story, one way to be a good employee, one way to get the work done.

As HR, we want to be sure our employees are equipped to do their best work. This means that we are creating an environment where we intentionally look for ways to be as expansive as possible.

We don’t want to narrow success down to one way of doing it. By focusing on shared values, we can create a space that weaves together a variety of ideas and backgrounds into one cohesive, vibrant whole.
 
If you could create a position whose sole function is to promote belonging, what would you call the position and what duties would you assign the position? 
 
I’m the worst when it comes to titles! I guess it would start with changing our D&I officers to DI&B officers – Diversity, Inclusion and Belonging. This is kind of a natural progression, because they used to be Diversity officers until we realized that Inclusion was critical, right?

The DI&B officer needs to get to know not only the employees already working for the organization, but also the employees who are not yet here.

What makes the current folks know they belong and are valued? What are your targeted employees looking for to feel welcomed? How can you make those things happen? How can your employees embrace each other’s’ differences?

Diversity looks at how to get different people through the door. Inclusion looks at how to make them welcome, but belonging looks at how to make them an integral part of the organization’s success, not in spite of their differences but because of them.

Earlier I mentioned that everyone, no matter what their role, should be able to feel a sense of ownership and that their contribution is meaningful to the success of the company. If they can do that while feeling like they can be themselves and not have to conform to some organizational standard that doesn’t fit them, then we have succeeded. 
 
How can people keep up with you?

I’m not all over social media, but I’d love for you to follow me on Twitter and connect on LinkedIn, and follow my blog, HR Underground