An illustrated portrait of Ella F. Washington

Asking tough questions to create a more equitable workplace

Georgetown professor and organizational psychologist Ella F. Washington on how to maximize diversity, equity and inclusion efforts

By the team at Slack24th March 2021Illustration by Justina Leisyte

When Ella F. Washington speaks, people listen. An organizational psychologist, PhD, professor at Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business, and the founder and CEO of consulting firm Ellavate Solutions, Washington is also a Gallup senior scientist studying diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) workplace topics. Her work has positively touched almost every industry, from financial services to sports to higher education.

Washington not only understands and deepens the research behind DEI, she is gifted at empowering leaders to take measurable action and lead with intention to achieve meaningful and sustainable outcomes in the workplace.

We were excited to chat with Washington about Future Forum’s Q4 Remote Employee Experience Index, which shows a positive perception among Black knowledge workers of remote and hybrid work. According to the research, Black knowledge workers working remotely in the United States are 25% more satisfied with their work-life balance and 64% more satisfied with their ability to manage work, and have twice the sense of belonging at work as their white colleagues.

Relative satisfaction with remote work vs. office work

Relative satisfaction with remote work vs. office work

This must all be taken with a grain of salt, Washington points out, since the privilege of working from home is afforded to less than 1 in 5 Black Americans. “You’re already starting from a deficit in terms of trying to build equity when talking about the Black population working remotely,” she says.

This ongoing systemic discrimination demands urgent action from business leaders. We asked Washington to share some advice on how to realize, activate and maximize our DEI efforts, at work and beyond.

How do leaders build more empathy and understanding on a human level while working remotely?

If you’ve heard of The Dialogue Project, you’ll know that globally, and especially in America, we have trouble conversing with people who may not share our perspective.

Instead of seeing the “we” in a conversation, we see through the “me, myself and I” lens. The virtual world only exacerbates things. During a Zoom call, you look at yourself at some point, right? There’s been research that shows that it’s unnatural for us to look at ourselves like this all day. It perpetuates that “me, myself and I” perspective.

In terms of drawing empathy, there are two things that are really important:

  1. Leaders should walk the walk. They have to demonstrate empathy and go out of their way to model appropriate conversations and seek out new perspectives.
  2. We have to reward and recognize good behavior. If you’re telling managers to be more empathetic, you can’t just say it. You have to provide support and recognize when people have done it positively.

For example, in a piece he wrote about empathy, Johnny Taylor, [the president and CEO of] the Society for Human Resource Management, shared that he bought a bunch of $25 gift cards and told his employees, “If you take someone new to lunch, someone you think you don’t have anything in common with, I’ll pay for it.” That’s putting intention to action.

Positive reinforcement doesn’t always have to take the form of money , but ultimately we all know that what is recognized and what is measured in an organization gets done.

“When we talk about building trust, it’s important for leaders to be authentic and vulnerable. To say ‘I’m struggling’ and ask employees what they’re struggling with. It’s not about bringing judgment but about amplifying humanity.”

Ella F. WashingtonDEI Expert, Georgetown Professor and Organizational Psychologist

How do you build trust in a work environment where our interactions are more frequently asynchronous and digital?

When you talk about building trust, specifically in a virtual environment, you need transparency and authenticity. In this virtual environment, we have to overcommunicate, which includes saying, “Hey, we don’t have this part quite figured out yet, but we’ll get back to you when we do.” A lot of times we don’t like to say that as leaders, but that’s real transparency.

Another factor of transparency has to do with the surveys companies are conducting to measure sentiment. The intent is right, but you also have to recognize and share when the findings aren’t ideal. You could say:

  • “Hey, we did this culture and climate survey and found out things aren’t so great. And we’re going to do something about it”
  • Or, “We’re not sure what to do about this yet, but we’ve hired somebody and we’re working on it over the next three months.”

That’s transparency.

The second part is authenticity. Especially in this virtual world, it’s easy for leaders to act like it’s business as usual. But we have to do more. It could be as simple as asking the question, “How are you?” and being honest enough to say, “I’m struggling today because all three of my kids are out of school and we don’t have child care.”

That comes with some personal divulgence of information, so I understand why it’s challenging. But if we are asking anyone to do that, we should start with our managers. Based on the data, your managers aren’t often going to be your people of color, unfortunately, especially in tech. So even in crossing those boundaries, you’re acknowledging differences.

You’ve spoken at length about the disconnect between how well-versed many people think they are in DEI versus how they actually act in the workplace. What steps can individuals take to close that gap?

A year ago, people weren’t “woke,” right? Now everyone’s woken up, but when it’s time for action, there are still gaps.

I co-wrote an article for the Harvard Business Review about taking meaningful action after the insurrection at the capitol. Many leaders had been talking for months about these tough issues—but the day after the insurrection, they didn’t recognize the time had come to make a plan and act.

It’s the same with allyship. We can read about it. We can say we learned so much. But are we actively questioning the status quo? It goes beyond considering if there are fair systems. You have to be very prescriptive about how work gets assigned, evaluated and rewarded. Are you thinking about how these processes are equitable?

“Anything that doesn’t clearly point to an objective or well-defined process should cause you to pause. Then you can start to examine the processes to see if there have been any inequitable outcomes, even if they’re unintended.”

Ella F. WashingtonDEI Expert, Georgetown Professor and Organizational Psychologist

If you can’t see clearly how work gets assigned, pause on that. Don’t just push through it. For example, during an in-person team meeting, work often gets assigned to whoever raises their hand, right? That’s problematic in many ways, and goes down different gender diversity and racial diversity paths, but let’s just say for this example that the process works in person.

Let’s put this same situation in the virtual work environment. Is it the first person to respond to the email? In virtual meetings, the loudest voice literally gets picked up by the system first. Is that who gets the project? We have to consider how we’re evaluating our normal processes from the lens of the virtual environment, and question how they contribute to inequitable outcomes and experiences.

Do you think this new movement toward allyship is different from previous attempts?

A lot of times with the allyship conversation, we’re waiting to hear someone commit a microaggression. We’re ready to step in and stand up and show how woke we are. And that’s great. We need more of that.

But what about those moments where there’s not an active microaggression being committed? How do we make sure that our allyship is still as well-intentioned and has an appropriate action behind it?

I think this is a critical difference that will define this new wave of allyship. In previous waves it was all about, “If you see something, do something.” But now, you don’t see something. What you see is the reality. We must actively look for the inequalities. We must literally search for them instead of waiting for them to come to us.

“In your next conversation with senior leadership, bring up an issue that’s been top of mind for you, not because your Black colleague said something but because you noticed the outcomes are not equitable and you know we should do something about it.”

Ella F. WashingtonDEI Expert, Georgetown Professor and Organizational Psychologist

How can those of us in a position of privilege better support and advocate for our underrepresented colleagues on an ongoing basis?

There are many things you can do that go beyond having a conversation with your Black colleagues—which I think is fantastic, by the way. But it is not the Black knowledge workers’ responsibility to educate their white colleagues on white supremacy.

The world has been built on white supremacy. It’s all around. You just have to open your eyes and ask yourself:

  1. Do I understand the context of what’s happening?
  2. Have I sought out my own knowledge and education?
  3. What am I doing about it? What is in my personal sphere of influence?

You have to make it personal. Because it’s so easy to talk about “them” over there. It’s the classic “I wasn’t a slave owner, that was my ancestor. Why are we talking about slavery in school?” No one’s blaming you for creating the system, but you’re living in it and likely benefiting from it. Are you going out of your way to question the norms and status quo?

If we’re in this virtual world, let’s maximize that. If you say you’re trying to understand allyship but don’t have any Black friends, I would ask: How many Black people do you follow on social media? When is the last time you read a book by a person of color? Are you seeking out diverse voices?

Especially in the tech world, you can’t fall back on the fact that you don’t have any Black people on your team. You probably won’t, unfortunately, and we’re working on that. Until then, there are so many different platforms where you can hear diverse voices, learn about diverse organizations and get involved. Even if you’re just getting on mailing lists. The point is to take action.

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