Equality, Diversity and Inclusion: 24/7 or 9 to 5?

In this discussion I spoke with EDI practitioners Emma Palmer and Meera Somji about success factors for running organisational programmes and, crucially, how practitioners can look after their own wellbeing and resiliency in a demanding profession.

This conversation covered a topic that comes up quite often which is looking after the resiliency and wellbeing of people who are working in the diversity and inclusion space. I think a lot of people working in this space experience burnout because they’re having to have challenging conversations and they’re not always leaning on an open door. It’s not one of those jobs that you can easily switch off at the end of the day.

In fact, a client of mine said they went on a holiday and ended up having a heated discussion with a friend on the beach about racism. This client was telling me, “Oh my God, I’m on holiday for God’s sake. Why can’t I turn off?” But these things just are pervasive throughout society, and when we work in this trade, it’s difficult to switch off.

I was therefore really pleased to be able to meet with Emma Palmer and Meera Somji, who are diversity and inclusion specialists and practitioners like me, to get their thoughts and insights. It’s always good to catch up with fellow professionals to swap notes on best practices especially around an important topic like this.

We got started with Meera telling me a bit more about her professional background.

‘My career started in a small management consultancy. Later on, I joined a tech start-up that was helping events businesses to optimise their pricing with data and analytics, all quite far from the diversity and inclusion space where I find myself now. As you can imagine, they were quite male-dominated, quite White-dominated spaces, and I found myself doing what I think a lot of people in employee resource groups are doing today, which is around creating spaces for education, encouraging more diversity in hiring, and having those heated discussions described in the introduction.

I was lucky that my company supported me in completing a master’s degree in Gender Studies part time. I was researching labour market inequalities. I started meeting and listening to EDI leaders. I started to understand some of the challenges they face. It’s not always knocking on an open door. It was hearing their experiences which led me to want to bring some of my data and analytics expertise into this space.

At the beginning of this year, I launched Clusivity which is a data analytics platform to help leaders engage others in the organisation to make change. I saw firsthand the power of data and insights to really drive executives to make decisions. That moment when you are in a meeting and you surprise someone with a very specific data point and all of a sudden, the energy changes to, “Well, what are we all going to do about this?” I wanted to see if I could build a tool that could help EDI leaders spark that shift.’

Next it was Emma’s turn to introduce herself and her background.

‘My name’s Emma Palmer, my pronouns are she/her. I’m a mixed-race Black, very out and proud gay woman. I’m an equity, diversity and inclusion specialist with experience in commercial and not-for-profit organisations. I’ve got a particular focus in my work around LGBTQ inclusion, race equity and intersectionality.

I’ve worked with a number of businesses throughout the UK, and they all swear to promote inclusive workplace cultures. I’ve done that through speaking workshops, training and consultancy. I’ve also worked in-house as a EDI manager, but now I’m on the other side in a consultancy capacity, as Head of Inclusion and Equity at Impact Culture. We support a number of organisations on their EDI journeys using three main categories, and those are evidence, impact and change.

Our approach means we can go in, assess and understand where organisations are at through a range of insight projects. We then move on to supporting those organisations develop impactful strategies that are long-term. We provide training or reflective sessions to advance that work, so everything connects as we go.

Prior to my EDI work, I was a police officer for eight years in the Met, but that’s a whole other story.’

I think one of the biggest shifts that we’ve seen in the EDI industry of late is the Black Lives Matter movement, particularly following the murder of George Floyd over in the States. I was interested to hear what impact Emma has seen of the movement on the industry?

‘The impact is huge. It was a watershed moment and a bit of an awakening for many people. For some of us, it was, “Well, we’ve been here before. We’ve been saying this all along”, but suddenly, it felt different, people were starting to listen. I think for decades lots of organisations neglected EDI. It was an area that didn’t get much focus or priority.

Since George Floyd and Black Lives Matter, it’s gained full spotlight with businesses, and I think they’re trying to play catch up. I began seeing a surge in organisations recruiting for EDI roles. A lot of these roles were at varying levels as well. On the one hand, it was nice to see. My LinkedIn was popping and there were roles left, right and centre.

It was nice to see our industry being taken seriously, but I was also quite sceptical at the same time because I’ve seen it time and time again where organisations try and tick a box. I was asking more critical questions like, “What’s your motivation? Why are you doing this? What’s your long-term plan? Etcetera, etcetera.”

The impact of Black Lives Matter on the industry was in organisations initially, I think, responding with a knee-jerk reaction to something so serious and systemic. For me that was only going to inflame the situation. We saw EDI managers being hired for the very first time, and then within the first six months or a year, they were burning out because they were being relied upon as the one with the sole responsibility to transform organisational culture. There was this idea that inclusion is the responsibility of one person in that role who then has to always try and be the voice of multiple identities who aren’t always in the room.

In addition to that, some organisations would turn towards their existing staff, whether that be their network groups or ERGs or just individuals in some cases, expecting them to change things from the inside. What I saw in the data, but also anecdotally, was a lot of Black and Brown folk, they found their voice during BLM, and their experiences and our experiences from all around the world were being amplified. Senior leaders were engaging. They were hearing what life was like, they were listening to some hard-hitting and tough lived experiences of people.

But I think the emotional labour of that was being put on people, and it was a lot. They started to suffer burnout. On a much wider level, we’ve seen people leaving organisations and setting up on their own. So those initial EDI managers that were going in, they’ve suddenly thought, “Well, this isn’t sustainable for me,” and I’ve got friends that have done that, and they’ve set up their own very successful consultancies, because being in-house sometimes can be extremely challenging. I think any organisation that’s neglected EDI over the years, they’ll be suffering the consequences as a result because it’s not something that just one person or even a small team can fix.’

Everything Emma said completely resonated with me. That’s a lot of my own personal experiences as well. I turned to Meera to ask, ‘How about you? What’s your kind of perspective on how successful or not the movement has been for our profession?’

‘Emma has comprehensively summarised that. It was encouraging to see organisations in some ways putting money where their mouth had been. But really, in many cases, it’s very disappointing at how little support those individuals they’ve brought in have been given. And it is Black and Brown folk and people who are directly affected by these systemic issues who tend to go for those roles. So, there is this heartbreaking situation of people who care so much, for whom these issues are so personal and they want to have a really positive impact and effect with their work. They are getting burned out because the organisation is not giving them the resources they need, the investment they need, the seat at the table that they need, the space and the room to get help, bring in consultants, to bring in tools that would allow them to be successful in that role. We see huge turnover in these new EDI roles.’

Emma added, ‘What Meera’s highlighted there is so true. I just want to qualify what I said about consultants. Because it’s not to say that if you leave and set up as a consultant, everything is going to be okay. Everything that Meera just said impacts people that are setting up on their own too. Perhaps they don’t have a network or an infrastructure around them either.

It’s down to organisations to look at where the root cause is as opposed to thinking they should pacify and put a plaster over somebody that might be burnt out. I’ve got friends who are consultants, and they’re going into organisations and they’re supporting them and they’re helping them, but some of the stories are wild that I’ve been hearing. Certain organisations still push back, and some of the language they’re using has been problematic and challenging for that one consultant to then have to grapple with personally at home. I think this is a bigger issue than just internal workplaces. I think it’s across the board.’

Moving on to what makes a successful EDI programme, I asked for Meera’s thoughts on what top three factors an organisation should be mindful of.

‘I think the more we can spread this, the better because there are three factors in my view that really set EDI leaders up for success. One of them is, real genuine authentic leadership commitment. I want to see the very top of the organisation speak openly and with a level of vulnerability and reflection. Not saying they’ve always cared about diversity, which I hear a lot, but somebody saying, “Actually, it hasn’t been one of our business priorities until now, but we’re seriously looking at the type of organisation we’re building, and we’re ready to really commit to change on an ongoing basis. We are not leaving the EDI role to sit by itself under People or under Culture so that one individual feels like it succeeds or fails based on them. No, EDI is being brought into one of our core business metrics – what we really judge ourselves on.”

The second one is data tracking. Now, I am going to say that because I’m a data enthusiast. I believe it and I’ve seen the power of it. I’ve seen how it can really operate as an internal accountability mechanism. I’m not saying track data so that you can plaster it over your website, and again, tick that box. I mean, if you’re doing well, that will speak for itself. But data can really hold people to account and allow them to celebrate their progress when they’ve made it.

Lastly, it’s that material financial investment. Emma mentioned emotional labour earlier. That went into organising those Black Lives Matter listening sessions as I heard some companies call them. Was that work valued? Was it recognised by the business as important? Did they leave it up to their minoritised staff to plan, organise and execute without any time off from their day job or additional compensation? I don’t know if everybody agrees with me on this point, but I think this work needs to be compensated a lot more. Too much EDI work these days is still done out of the goodness of people’s hearts. So those are my three factors: leadership commitment, data and investment.’

What Meera says in alignment with my book, Inclusive Growth. I talk about leadership in my chapter on clarity. Investment, I cover under change and around properly resourcing EDI. And data, I also talk about under the clarity chapter as well, collecting data and employee insights to help shape your strategy. So, I agree with those are three key things that need to be factored.

Emma continued, ‘I think for me data shows is there has been some progress and there have been some advancements in real change instead of those performative efforts that I think we’ve all seen that obviously don’t tackle the issues. I found some new research that tells us that the number of employers implementing new EDI drives has almost tripled since the end of Black Lives Matter. According to an opinion survey of 2000 adults, a total of 27% of minority ethnic workers said their employers had introduced new initiatives during the last twelve months in response to what happened. That was an increase from 10% in 2020, the year in which that uprising began. The latest multicultural Britain survey undertaken by the advocacy organisation, Reboot, said that almost half, 47% of minority ethnic workers had seen their employer take some sort of action to tackle racism and diversity problems, which is up from 40% in 2020.

Yet, there was a survey result that showed people were having fewer conversations about race this year than in the summer of 2020, and that’s really interesting. A possible reason that was cited for that was that there’s a real sense of fatigue when discussing race, especially for ethnic minorities who carry the burden of educating white people in their workforces.

This is what I found interesting. It added that people may be concerned that having conversations about race could lead to them saying the wrong thing, and then that could cost them their job. So again, this links to burnout because it’s emotionally draining to be talking about these things almost daily. And I want to broaden this, it isn’t just about race, this is about any protected characteristic that impacts you.

For me, the concern for people saying the wrong thing and losing their jobs is just covert and insidious racism or discrimination, it’s not fatigue or burnout, you know? If what you say isn’t racist, then you shouldn’t worry about speaking up and losing your job. And if an organisation finds itself in that situation whereby a person does speak up and what they’ve said is racist or it falls into any other form of discrimination, then I’d seriously be thinking about whether or not you want that person in your organisation in the first place. In any event, these listening sessions and conversations that took place, those and of themselves will be impacting people.’

I wanted to stick with Emma to build on what she said. Recently Jacob Rees-Mogg in the government said that he wants to get rid of all diversity and inclusion officers in the government. He said it was a job created for the woke by the woke. When thinking about that diversity fatigue and having conversations with senior leaders who might be afraid of saying the wrong thing, I wondered how Emma reacts when she hears things like that? ‘What do you feel is the result of that on EDI leaders in organisations?’

‘It frustrates me. It angers me that those words were so flippantly and freely used because they’re so harmful and damaging. We do know that it’s still very hard to influence people in this space if they don’t get it or if they don’t think that it’s important. Somebody like Rees-Mogg using that platform to perpetuate some of the views and perspectives around this work is dangerous.

I think for leaders who fall out of the category of getting it and who think that this is just woke nonsense, it’s almost validating their argument. It makes it harder for the rest of us in the role, whatever level you’re at. It makes it harder for us to do the work. Makes a difficult job even more difficult. And I think it’s dangerous territory for us as well.’

Meera continued, ‘I feel all the same pains and frustrations Emma described. I did hear one interview, and I can’t remember who it’s with, but it helped me shift my perspective a little bit. The interviewee when asked this question said, “With every progressive movement, there is a backlash. There has always been.”

When you hear the likes of Jacob Rees-Mogg and others who try to dismiss this work and undermine this work, what you’re actually hearing is people who are so threatened and feeling so defensive of a world and a structure and a system that they can feel is being challenged and is being threatened and undermined. I find this argument hard because they’re such powerful people.

Our work is all about where power lies. These are extraordinarily powerful and influential figures, but I have to believe that the reason they need to succumb to such damaging and quite nasty arguments is because their world view is out of touch. It’s so out of sync, and they are having to desperately hold on to it. In a way, it riles me up. Yet it makes me feel like we’re changing things. We are moving things, and if they need to hold on for dear life, let them try. The world is changing.’

I like that perspective. I asked Meera, ‘What would you like to see change within the EDI industry?’

‘I think it’s how this work is valued and perceived and then more broadly how the industry operates. I don’t want organisations to expect this work to be done for free. I think there’s a fundamental role for employee resource groups and the like, but I think this is work that needs investment. It needs time. It needs resource. I think if you don’t do that, you’re just setting your EDI leaders up for failure and you give them unrealistic expectations. I want the way this work to be valued.’

Emma tacked the same question saying, ‘Well, there’s a couple of things for me. There’s the personal and the professional, and then there’s the structure of these roles in organisations. I think firstly, there needs to be a new narrative when we talk about EDI, not just internally, but externally. I reached out to a few people on my LinkedIn and I asked them, “What things are important to you when we talk about burnout? What thoughts and suggestions would you like us to discuss?”
Firstly, there was a running theme around the personal and the professional intertwining. The second theme was around this work feeling like it’s never ending, that it’s not just a nine-to-five.

I think that as EDI practitioners, we’re forever talking about there being no end point to this work, and it is an open-ended journey. We need to be more conscious of the impact the open-endedness has on us as practitioners because it can feel quite overwhelming. When you look at the identity piece, it’s so linked with our professional life, and it’s really difficult sometimes to separate that.

How do you do that when you feel isolated maybe because you’re the only one doing the work.
I think this narrative around it being a destination that we need to reach is a false one, because I think it just perpetuates this idea that there is some sort of Narnia and that’s not realistic or helpful.

What we can do is break some of this stuff down so that it just feels more achievable and not insurmountable for leaders, but also for those in EDI roles. Touching on what I said on my last point, I’d like to see better structures in place throughout the life cycle of an employee in the role because I don’t think there’s enough consistency at the moment. Each organisation has its own set of ways of working and that’s completely fine because this isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach. But I think the industry needs better frameworks and there needs to be better accountability both internally and externally. For me, there’s a conversation to be had around how this links with our personal lives, and how the structure of a EDI role is designed internally.’

I asked Meera, what her advice is for people on this point. ‘How can you spot burnout? What do you think are some of the useful ways of addressing it if you do notice it?’

‘The industry is evolving and I think we have reached a point where this conversation is happening more and more. I’m seeing more and more forums and support groups for EDI professionals facing burnout, which is encouraging. It is a new stage for the industry. I think it’s going to have very positive effect.

To spot signs of burnout, think about waking up and dreading the day you’re about to have and not feeling a sense of excitement about things you have achieved yesterday and things you’re going to achieve today. It’s because you feel you’re drowning, with general wear and tear on your mental health. That manifests in different ways for different people. In my experience, I’ve got some anxious tendencies, so that would be catastrophising, having negative thoughts run through my mind all day long, struggling to fall asleep. There are some classic signs there of anxiety and poor mental health, which I’m sure some people will relate to when they hear.

Other signs of burnout include, not having enough time for you. Ask when was the last time you really switched off, enjoyed yourself, felt fully recharged? If you can’t remember, it’s probably been too long.’

As Emma said, she reached out to her LinkedIn network to explore what was coming up. As a reminder the key themes that emerged were about EDI being this never-ending work, the inability to switch off or have that kind of separation between personal and professional boundaries. With that in mind, I asked Emma, ‘What do you feel are things that EDI professionals can do to better equip themselves with their resiliency and mental well-being?

‘One thing I’d really like to see is organisations prioritise is how they focus on and embed psychological safety across their teams. This is critical if you want people to feel like they belong in an organisation and feel like they can also trust people within their organisations. This links to things people can do to support themselves. I think EDI professionals often have firsthand lived experience of the things that they’re trying to challenge and tackle. And the last 12 months as we now have been hugely significant for the industry. So for anybody that’s thinking about going into the space and perhaps are leading that with their lived experience and their passion, I’d say just be aware of the impact that this could have on you later on down the line, because the personal and the professional are so linked, it is hard to separate the two.

It’s not impossible to separate. There have been times when I’ve had to not internalise things that I’ve seen or heard with clients that I’m working with, or colleagues that I’m working with and not take it personally. But I think a large part of me being able to do that is probably partly down to resilience, but also healing.

And healing is an important one, because I’d heal parts of myself from my past experiences and traumas that have then allowed me to step into a space and speak from my lived experience with heart, with authenticity, because I’ve healed whatever traumas were limiting me before. It is like the storytelling. You wouldn’t share parts of your story with people that you didn’t know if you weren’t ready, and it’s the same with EDI work.

This will look different for everybody, but I do think it’s important that we as EDI professionals or anybody that is thinking of going into the space that we’re accountable to ourselves, and we look after ourselves before we are then used to sharpen any workforce’s compassion.

Think about why you want to go into the space and what parts of you you’re using to share and to effect change. I’ve had lots of people reach out to me on LinkedIn and ask for support or mentor them, and I do, but I often want to drill down on their why before we get into the nuts and bolts of the reality.’

Meera was keen to remind us that these roles can be quite challenging jobs. She added, ‘There are lots of different ways of doing EDI work. We’ve already touched on the difference between in-house and consultants, and they bring different challenges and you can have a real think about what suits you more. But then there’s also different types of programs and implementations and interventions you can be involved in. I have decided for myself, I just like the data and analytics piece. I’m not prepared personally to start running workshops or doing more of that storytelling in an organisation. I feel comfortable and confident staying in that data space. There’s lots of opportunities, there’s lots of ways to find a way that works for you if you want to do this work.’

I think finding your unique skills will be in the areas that actually give you energy. I did an interview with the founder of a tool called The GC Index or The Game Changer Index. Basically, you take a test and it will tell you which out of five areas you get energy from and where you make your biggest impact.

People are either towards the creative, strategic end of the spectrum or towards the getting stuff done, rolling up your sleeves, very practical end of the spectrum. It’s a useful tool if anyone is interested in understanding where or what gives you energy.

We then moved to the question that I ask everybody who comes on the podcast, ‘What does inclusive growth mean to you?’

Emma went first, ‘For me it’s around conscious inclusion and thinking about how you step up and having a growth mindset as opposed to a fixed mindset. This work is evolving, it’s changing all the time. If we think about language, it is constantly changing and people’s identities can change.

Inclusive growth is all about having the mindset to be able to step into those new perspectives and new ways of thinking. Particularly as a leader. As a leader in an organisation maybe doing this work, or engaging in this work, this might be the beginning for you. If so, then having that growth mindset is important because without it, you will be limiting yourself and you will also be limiting the growth of any organisation that you’re in and the teams around you. It’s really about equity and inclusion at a much broader level.’

Meera shared her thoughts. ‘Inclusive growth is seeing those Clusivity schools growing in an organisation. It’s measuring to check that an organisation is investing in a more inclusive culture. Policies that protect people’s psychological safety in the workplace. People know how to report issues and don’t fear backlash. People aren’t experiencing microaggressions on a daily basis. People feel equally supported to progress in their career. We help organisations take quite a holistic view, and it’s fun to see numbers grow.

A bit like you’re at school, inclusive growth can look like you’re actively learning and improving. You’re actively building a place where people want to stay. That is what inclusive growth looks like to me.’

To get in touch with Emma Palmer you can contact her either through her LinkedIn page or email her at [email protected]

To talk to Meera Somji you can also reach out via her LinkedIn page and follow Clusivity there or get in touch via the Clusivity website and even book a Calendly slot for a chat.

Equality, Diversity and Inclusion: 24/7 or 9 to 5? - Mildon