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Karen Tracey and Aaron Wolowiec

Q&A With Karen Tracey & Aaron Wolowiec: The Importance of Employee Engagement in Diversity & Inclusion

Last week, we sat down with Rob McCarty and Darel Ross to discuss the importance of business owners engaging in diversity and inclusion (D&I) both inside and outside of the workplace. While business owners certainly do need to set an example and are the most logical folks to initiate D&I practices in the workplace, it's also critical for employees to get behind the movement and start making moves both in their professional and personal lives.

This week, we continue the discussion with Karen Tracey, TIS creative director & president, and Aaron Wolowiec, Event Garde learning strategist & meetings coach, and Healthy By Association founder & group administrator—this time, about how to engage employees in D&I practices.

Engaging employees in the D&I movement is certainly a big task. What’s the starting point? Are there several places you can start?

Aaron Wolowiec: Simon Sinek would encourage us to start with why. Determine the why behind D&I (which may be unique for different organizations) and from there you should work to gain consensus from the team about what you will do to achieve your why and how you will get there. Check out Simon Sinek’s golden circle for more.

Karen Tracey: So true. Your "why" drives you as an individual and an organization. And if your "why" doesn't align with embracing inclusive values yourself, you won't get very far. That doesn’t mean you have to have it all figured out at the start. But if you do embrace these values yourself, you can approach the journey as a learning process that you take alongside your staff so that you grow and become better together.

"Approach the journey as a learning process that you take alongside your staff so that you grow and become better together." – Karen Tracey

How can engaging employees in the D&I movement improve the workplace? The community? Personal lives?

KT: In so, so many ways. For one, a diverse workforce fosters more creativity from a richer depth of viewpoints. This not only benefits your team, but it also benefits your customers with deeper and more meaningful work. Plus, work cultures that are inclusive tend to be more constructive, which translates to more employee satisfaction, and hence better employee retention. I think our community benefits from an inclusive work culture the most. Engaged, satisfied and more culturally-sensitive workers tend to bring more value to the communities in which they live, work and play.

" A diverse workforce fosters more creativity from a richer depth of viewpoints." – Karen Tracey

AW: Exactly, KT. It's about benefiting from the diversity of thought—more and different voices at the table means leveraging perspectives/ideas that were previously not available. This expands options, understanding, complexity, etc., both for the organization and for an individual’s own personal development. 

Is it difficult to get employees passionate about learning and pursuing more D&I practices in the workplace? What are some methods to creating passion around that topic?

AW: We’re asking the wrong questions here. Employees will be passionate about whatever is engrained into the culture/fabric of the organization. (If not, then we’re not properly hiring for fit).

KT: That's an excellent point, Aaron. So what is the real question here?

"Why should we care about D&I? The answer is simple: It’s becoming a business imperative." – Aaron Wolowiec

AW: I think we need to be asking, "Why should we care about D&I?" And the answer is simple: It’s becoming a business imperative. In an increasingly diverse landscape, we have to seek out more diverse employees and suppliers so we can provide quality products, programs and services to diverse customers. Otherwise, our competitors will beat us to the punch, we will no longer be relevant and we’ll be pushed out of jobs.

KT: That's right. And I go back to the fact that you have to espouse these values yourself and be passionate about them to even begin to get your staff engaged. It’s much more productive to have people come along to a new idea on their own than by forcing them to do something a particular way. By sharing how important inclusivity is to me personally and by ensuring my actions back that up, we start off on the right foot. It's also critical to ask others for their input and opinions. For example, asking your team, "How can we approach this particular topic in a better way? What are some ways you think we could do a better job at being inclusive in this environment?"

How do you keep the momentum going once employees are finally engaged?

KT: Keep talking about it and keep the initiatives you’ve begun in the forefront of your daily work. Have a visual representation of that work if you’re a visual person. It’s also important to set goals and hold people accountable. Aaron helped us with this during our D&I workshop he custom created for us. He ensured we set goals with deadlines and then followed up with us to ensure we were continuing our work and staying on target.

"If we're thinking about D&I as another initiative to check off our list, we’re doing it wrong." –Aaron Wolowiec

AW: Again, if we're thinking about D&I as another initiative to check off our list, we’re doing it wrong. But to Karen's point (and Simon Sinek's point to start with why), you have to continue discussing with your employees why your business as an organization and why you as an individual care about making D&I a priority. Your "why" should always keep you motivated and drive your passion to do and be better.

What are some helpful resources to help businesses along the journey of engaging/integrating for D&I practices and policies into the workplace?

KT: Networking with diverse groups and creating connections with people who look different than you do is one of the best ways to start and my favorite way to immerse myself. Organizations like Equity Drinks are a great resouce for that. Aaron, what are some of your favorite online resources?

"Creating connections with people who look different than you do is one of the best ways to start." –KarenTracey

AW: Yes, making in-person connections with other folks at networking events is probably one of the best ways to expand your learning on this topic. But in addition to attending live events, here are a couple online resources I've found incredibly helpful:

What extra steps/efforts need to be taken to not only drive home the importance of diversity but also inclusion amongst employees?

KT: When a person can't be themselves at work, they simply cannot engage fully as a member of your team. You have to be open to embracing everyone. When someone feels afraid to be themselves, they will withdraw which can cause low morale, decreased productivity, and ultimately retention difficulties. Open, effective communication with a very clear way for the employee to feedback is essential. And what you do with that feedback is equally important. As a manager, I often listen to employees vent their frustrations, but knowing when to just listen versus when to act on a problem is key.

AW: I think it's important that both management and employees understand the difference between diversity and inclusion. A handy reference is available here. Then, employees need to talk about their own personal examples and experiences with D&I. This may include carefully exploring their own bias/privilege. It’s recommended this be conducted by a trained professional, in a process similar to what we did for TIS earlier in the year.

What are some examples of how employees can be inclusive of one another?

KT: Listen. I find so many people just want to talk. There is such a need to be heard in this instantaneous, fast-paced, over-sensitized, low-bandwidth world we live in. When you simply close your mouth and just listen, it goes a very, very long way in helping an employee feel heard. Sometimes you just need to listen and there really isn’t necessarily an action that has to take place. 

"When you simply close your mouth and just listen, it goes a very, very long way in helping an employee feel heard." –Karen Tracey

AW: I completely agree, KT. There is so much to be said about the power and simplicity of openly communicating and listening to one another. Any genuine activities/experiences demonstrating co-workers are valued, respected and supported—this includes differing viewpoints and perspectives during team meetings or as part of organization projects and initiatives. 

What types of changes do we start to see within business when employees engage in inclusive practices?

KT: We see more creativity, stronger ideas, better camaraderie, more compassion, and a deeper understanding of one another. I do feel this is something we all need to figure out in order to create better organizations, communities and a better city. The time is now; it’s not something we can put on the back burner. We need to embrace inclusivity and take this opportunity to make Grand Rapids the GREAT city it has the potential to become… one organization and one person at a time.

"You will attract more diverse employees, suppliers and customers almost by accident—though it’s actually the result of ongoing and consistent efforts..." –Aaron Wolowiec

AW: So true. You also will attract more diverse employees, suppliers and customers almost by accident—though it’s actually the result of ongoing and consistent efforts to create a culture that not only values but rewards diversity and inclusion.

Interested in learning more about how to engage your employees in diversity and inclusion?

Aaron and Karen are both more than willing to chat more on this topic with you.

Click here to get in touch with Aaron Wolowiec.

Click here to get in touch with Karen Tracey.

Next week from TIS: Sustainability as it pertains to diversity and inclusion.

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