As an African-American woman sitting in the C-suite as a chief human resources officer, I can tell you that diversity work is far more arduous than most people imagine. Often, the bias challenges we face come from decisions made years ago regarding job design, staffing, or development. The negative results of these decisions may go unnoticed for years. However, with the wealth of human capital data available today, we can now see the impact of these decisions and how biases are often unconsciously created and sustained as a consequence.
But data about bias alone is not going to bring about significant change to a business. It is the complementary experience from personal insights on the data and the related work we do that will make a real impact. The willingness of people to have honest, constructive conversations helps us see past our own biases and tap into the true potential of ourselves and those around us.
A very personal data point on bias
From a personal perspective, everyone knows my race and my gender. It is readily apparent that I happen to be a woman who is black. Those two things were determined by my mother and father. There’s no accident there. I am proud of who I am and of my history, but I don’t want people to believe that I am successful because of my race and gender.
However, I have been called a token part of a quota. This kind of bias has actually made me work harder and helped to create more depth in my discipline and more breadth in my experience. Gender or race bias can distract or derail people, but it actually motivated me.
How did I avoid derailment? For me, one defining moment that helped propel me beyond being distracted by my race or gender came from a colleague. This person had the courage to look beyond the biases that proliferate in our society, see my potential as a leader, and speak out about it.
This experience, which helped shape me professionally, happened at the University of Dayton, where I was an associate dean of students. Though I wasn’t personally present, Raymond Fitz, a seasoned leader at the university, attended a faculty breakfast where he was asked: “If you could profile the perfect professional here, who would it be?”
Fitz responded that it would be someone with high energy, grace, and a big sense of humor – “someone like Debra.” I was stunned when a colleague who also attended the breakfast came to me, shared this story, and told me, “He said it was you.”
This single data point that my colleague was kind enough to share helped define who I am today. It made me realize that others saw my true potential, and knowing that helped give me the confidence to believe in myself. And it never would have happened if my colleague had not felt comfortable sharing a comment made during a private executive breakfast.
Creating a safe space to speak up
The courage to speak up is something that my company actively promotes throughout all levels of the organization. We believe that everything that goes on in society also impacts our workplace. And we have the ability as an employer to influence how people learn and how they interact with families, churches, and communities.
As we watched bias-based dialogue and actions threaten social justice across our country, our HR team decided that our teammates needed a safe place to have their own conversations. Together with a local not-for-profit organization that highlights art and innovation, we sponsor a series of events called First Responders. We found a creative solution in holding off-campus facilitated conversations where everyone feels valued and respected. Their viewpoints can be challenged in that safe place and is either courageously affirmed or debated. To anchor the conversation, we leverage the mission of the non-profit organization and feature one of the artists-in-residence and their work.
We have talked about Ferguson, the Emanuel Nine, Ebola, and domestic violence. We have touched on all of the topics that are so poignant in our society – issues that help create stability or that disrupt it. Good or bad, these issues come into the workplace. Because of the diversity of my team, we now have a place to explore conversations that are safe and thought-provoking. The willingness to talk about sensitive topics is as important as the conversations themselves.
Having a safe environment for conversation is critical to diversity and inclusion work. Creating an inclusive culture is not a single problem that can be solved; rather, it is something organizations must constantly maintain and work toward. As leaders address one challenge, new challenges inevitably emerge. This is why it is so important to create an environment that encourages and promotes ongoing, healthy, and courageous conversations.
Using data to drive ongoing actions
For more than 10 years, Carolinas Healthcare System has made a deliberate decision to create programs with the goal of supporting women. In that decade, its population of female assistant vice presidents and executives has grown from 60 to more than 200. That’s the good news.
More recently, we used data to help us recognize that a new gap has evolved: It became readily apparent that we need to give these 200 or so women opportunities beyond the assistant vice president level and offer them the next step in their professional development. It would be easy to see this data as a negative outcome, but instead the data showed us where the opportunity was.
All it takes is a little courage
It took courage on the part of our executives to boldly create programs over the past ten years. And it will take courage now to move beyond this gap and give these women opportunities to once again move forward as the future leaders of our company.
Thankfully, I have been given opportunities like this throughout my career. Because of these, I now bring the ability to translate the experience of our workforce, majority and minority, into opportunities for people to develop, achieve, and excel.
This blog is part of our Defining Moment series. At SAP, our higher purpose is to help the world run better and improve people’s lives. We are committed to diversity and inclusion in the workplace and moving #BusinessBeyondBias. To learn more about the future of diversity and inclusion, visit www.successfactors.com and watch this video to hear from other leaders on the topic.