Creating Conversations about Diversity and Inclusion

Dr Angeline Lim, National University of Singapore, shares her thoughts on creating conversations about diversity and inclusion.

19 Sep 2023 Articles Grievance handling Work-life harmony Best practices

While Diversity and Inclusion (D&I) is an important aspect of the workplace, not every organisation has the resources to design formal D&I initiatives. Conversations can be a simple yet effective way to do this. We invite Dr. Angeline Lim (not pictured), Research and Program Lead at the National University of Singapore’s Care Unit, to share her thoughts with us.

Q: In your view, why is it important to have conversations about D&I in the workplace?

Firstly, talking about diversity increases awareness that people are different from each other and that such differences can add value to the organisation. This difference is not just in terms of visible characteristics such as gender and race, but other less visible or invisible characteristics such as skills, experience, language(s) spoken, etc. 

Secondly, highlighting the importance of inclusion sets the tone for employees to interact with each other in a respectful manner. On a related note, when these conversations are done in small groups or in 1-on-1 settings, they can serve as a safe space for staff to share their personal experiences at work. For example, they could be on the receiving end of microaggressions, which are subtle words or actions that can feel offensive or hurtful to some aspect of a person’s identity. These avenues for sharing their felt experiences allow employees to feel heard and valued by the organisation. 

Lastly, organisational representatives (e.g. HR professionals, supervisors) who are involved in such conversations can get a greater understanding of the state of D&I in the workplace and in which areas the organisation can better support its employees. These representatives can also take this opportunity to share existing policies or make some accommodations that can address the concerns raised.

Q:  What do these conversations look like, and how should one go about having such conversations?

Conversations about D&I can take many forms. Broadly speaking, they can encompass: 

  1. Formal conversations
    These can be led by organisational representatives and may be done in the form of D&I training workshops, employee forums, or just lunch-and-learn sessions among interested employees, or as part of departmental / organisational retreats, meetings, etc. Generally, these conversations would have a clear and focused D&I agenda, with one or two persons appointed to facilitate these conversations. 

    It is essential that discussions about D&I be handled sensitively, as they deal with issues of discrimination, stereotypes, prejudices, and the social identities of employees in the organisation. Facilitators should have a good knowledge of workplace D&I issues and have excellent communication and facilitation skills. They should also be able to build trust with and among the participants and create a safe space for them to learn from each other and share. Most importantly, facilitators need to be mindful of their own biases and have good self-awareness before facilitating such conversations.

  2. Informal conversations 
    These are more casual in nature and can take place between supervisors and supervisees, or even among team members and co-workers. Supervisors may choose to bring up the topic of D&I in 1-on-1 conversations with employees, and these can be more personalised conversations about the employee’s personal experiences and concerns or more general chats about what D&I means to them and their perception of D&I in the organisation. 

    As with formal conversations, supervisors can prepare by equipping themselves with sufficient D&I knowledge, being clear about the intent of such conversations, and being mindful to approach the conversation in an empathetic and non-judgmental manner. It is important to ensure that employees feel comfortable and safe enough to share. 

Through these conversations, supervisors can learn more about the people working with them to: 

  • Remove any unnecessary barriers to building trust and rapport. 
  • Evaluate if there are actions that need to be taken to ensure greater respect and inclusion, based on learning about how others interact with their employees.
  • Assess how the organisation’s policies and processes are impacting their employees, and if required, take action to ensure they are equitable.

Some examples of questions that can be asked in such conversations include: 

  1. How would you define the terms ‘diversity’ and ‘inclusion’ in the context of the workplace?
  2. How does the organisation match up to your personal understanding of D&I? What do you think has been done well? What are possible areas of improvement?
  3. Have you ever felt left out at work? What caused you to feel that way?
  4. Have you faced or witnessed prejudice or discrimination at work? Can you share more about what happened?
  5. Do you feel you have sufficient support to succeed in your role? What can the organisation or I do to support you better? 

Q: Any final thoughts?

When such conversations are done well, they help create a greater understanding of each other’s experiences and perspectives, whether it is senior management with rank-and-file employees, or among team members. This can lead to greater empathy, mutual respect, and appreciation for one another, and help to improve communication and collaboration at work. The insights garnered from these discussions can also help facilitate the development of relevant and appropriate D&I policies and practices. 

All in all, the organisation’s intentionality and efforts to facilitate such conversations can send a strong signal that D&I is being treated seriously. This can help make staff feel safe to discuss D&I topics and spur them to play their part in cultivating an inclusive workplace culture.