ELI President and CEO Stephen M. Paskoff, Esq. was recently featured on the HCMx Radio podcast. During the episode, Mr. Paskoff was interviewed by Brandon Hall Group COO, Rachel Cooke and the focus of the interview was Diversity, Equity & Inclusion in the Workplace. Below is a summary of the discussion.
RACHEL: Stephen, can you share a little bit about your background and why you’re an expert on the subject of diversity, equity and inclusion?
STEPHEN: I believe in civil rights and equal employment opportunity. I was an investigator for the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission when I was in law school. When I graduated, I became a trial attorney as part of a group based in Atlanta, where I had responsibilities for investigating and litigating individual and pattern and practice claims of discrimination. I left the government, joined a private law firm, advised clients and represented them in a range of equal employment, affirmative action-related matters. I was there from 1976-86 as a partner, and I started seeing issues of discrimination that could have been readily avoided. They were based on behaviors, but the way learning was taught was inefficient. Lawyers like me would go in and bore people to death, talking about the law and not ever focusing on core behaviors that define the basic problems. I then started Employment Learning Innovations — ELI — named after my son’s middle name. The whole idea was to help clients operate professionally and legally in a nondiscriminatory way. We work all over the country and internationally, and have had sorts of experiences, teaching and helping to change workplace cultures and standards.
RACHEL: You spent your whole career defending civil rights and writing about it. What do you see that’s changing or maybe not changing
STEPHEN: I want to speak specifically about the workplace where people are evaluated, hired and brought in based on their merits, skills and capabilities, and included in the workplace as productive team members where they’re given the opportunity to do their best work and work cooperatively and collaboratively with others. As my work evolved, the whole idea is to get organizations to see that yes, there’s a legal element to this but there is more to the point. It’s related to performance and results, getting the best talent and then utilizing that talent, advancing them and giving them the opportunities to produce the best results.
RACHEL: How do you see some companies falling short in being able to address issues effectively and what should they do about it?
STEPHEN: I think many organizations are trying to improve, to have a diverse workplace, which means having people with the best talent you can find from the wide array of available people. There’s an awful lot of talk about the commitment to equity and inclusion, but what I see as an issue is taking that aspiration and converting it to daily behavior which changes habits, the people and the way people work together. When those topics are treated as isolated subjects — diversity, equity and inclusion — and they’re not related to other topics derived from an organization’s mission, vision and values, they are subjects that aren’t integrated the same way as other subjects are. That is causing frustration and it’s minimizing the opportunity for lasting, enduring cultural roots.
RACHEL: Can you talk about the model that you’ve created to help companies figure this out?
STEPHEN: The model starts with the idea that if you want to bring in people from a wide array of backgrounds, you’ve got to do it in a way that unifies the workplace rather than divides. Employees who join the organization should be subject to the same commitment to the organization’s mission, vision and values. That should be treated as core elements linked to diversity, equity and inclusion, and other key initiatives. It should lead to a standard type of behavior in terms of how people are treated and that are applied as principles of organizational citizenship. Everyone should share in those values and standards, and that is the place where you can better understand differences. The organizational commonalities are critical for bringing people together and that’s where you’ve got to start. Not everyone gets this. There are folks who don’t understand it or are prone to resistance. What you can use to bring them together is to get them to say, “Don’t we all share a commitment to values, mission and vision? Don’t we all want to have the best results? Don’t we all want to work according to the same rules? Then here’s how we go through that to get the best results.” If they can see this is an element of culture, values and mission that affects them and helps them and their teams be more successful, it’s a more positive way to start and bring people together from our experience.
RACHEL: Can you give me an example?
STEPHEN: I tell clients there’s an arm of the United States government that is responsible in part for preventing threats that involve chemical, nuclear, biological and other forms of hazards. What they have to do is find out about issues and prevent them. It involves getting them to see people from a wide array of backgrounds who work together and talk about what they’re seeing, which has cultural elements and insights that you have to have. The approach is to get folks to see, “wait a minute, this is how we work together to reduce those threats. What could be more important than having the right folks whose talents and skills we can use to our mission for the American citizen and broader?” They may be different, but they are united in mission, that they have to be able to express their views, treated as colleagues to fully speak up and benefit from all they can bring to our workplace. That can be used in other organizations. We’ve use it in health care, we’ve used in nuclear power, we’ve used it in government and we have used it all over. That’s the whole point.
RACHEL: How do you get them to commit?
STEPHEN: You talked about an aspirational workplace to get people to work together. The key is to get them to recognize that this is all tied to results. You have to have principles of behavior. From our experience, you’ve got to set some standards. It’s basic that there are certain kinds of behaviors that you don’t engage in, things you don’t say. Now, when we say you don’t say them, it means you don’t do them on Zoom or another platform, you don’t do them in telephone calls or in meetings, email, text, whatever. You have to be careful about what you write and what you say. There are other steps, like knowing when to get help and listening. And another aspect is you’ve got to have a culture where people are willing to speak up about their differences. There has to be a consistent model of behavior that applies to race issues, talking about things in the standard of conduct that incidentally is something that applies to equal employment opportunity, which is closely interrelated to diversity, equity and inclusion. They are not separate and too often, they are treated as if they are. This also applies to civility, respect, building a welcoming environment and other kinds of organizational initiatives. That’s got to be something that is embedded in the organization.
RACHEL: What’s the process for this?
STEPHEN: You just don’t come in and do it. Some organizations are thinking we are going to do it. They say, “We’re going to take a journey.” And we say to them, “You say you’re going to take a journey but you’re going to do a one-time training and be done. You’re talking about a day trip, not a journey. It’s very short, and this is extended.” I can give you what we call the C5 — C to the fifth power — for exponential change. I can tell you the core elements. They take practice and commitment. One of them is commitment to change culture. The first is leadership commitment. Leadership commitment means leaders first at the top, then at all levels. This is not one and done. This is an enduring change that will make us better. Help us get better results in line with our values, mission and vision. Leaders have got to commit to it and that doesn’t mean sending out a once- a-year message and a great video from the CEO, whoever he or she is. It’s got to be something that is stated, talked about, brought up, and not just a corporate statement. Second, and related to that, is communication. You’ve got to talk about this commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion in workaday meetings. Leaders talk about sales and quality, professionalism and ethics, and standards and safety. Comments about core ingredients of that diversity, equity and inclusion for results have to be brought up, too. As for training support, policies and rules are important — that’s content. Another element is consequences; treat each other in a way that expresses your values to get those best results. You can recognize outstanding performance with awards, compensation, performance, etc. If you don’t enforce standards, you’re saying, they don’t apply or they apply only in limited situations. The last is continuity. This is not something you say, “We did a great job of in 2021, we’re done.” Let’s say you surpass your sales goal in 2021; is the CEO are going to say in 2022 that there are no standards? Absolutely not. This is the same thing.
RACHEL: How can organizations focus on this as a strategic imperative?
STEPHEN: If I work with you and I say something to you that’s a problem or vice versa, if I don’t speak up or you don’t speak up, you might keep it to yourself but you’re still going to bear some level of resentment or distrust because I said it. It could be something that one of us didn’t realize was offensive to the other or it could be something that was misheard or misinterpreted. If you don’t speak up, the distrust continues and it still affects the relationship, even though it wasn’t “that serious.” One of the things we’re urging people to do is to speak up and work things out in a workaday manner. It should be as quick as that. It should be that way, with the culture that’s not easy. It’s aspirational. It’s not easy, but it’s critical.
RACHEL: Is there anything you’d like to add?
STEPHEN: The issue is, how do you take something aspirational that is tied to your values and convert it so it becomes day-to-day, “it’s just the way we do things.” Every organization has things that are “just the way we do things — or don’t” and there needs to be behavioral principles dealing with diversity, equity, inclusion and civility, and a welcoming environment and respect, all linked together. That’s the next learning challenge tied to behavior that I think all of us need to be focusing on.
RACHEL: What would be the best way for someone to follow up with you?
STEPHEN: I suggest that they take a look at our website and contact us. We have a team who we’ve worked with and explain our best practices that would be delighted to answer questions, show our experience with content, and can provide a free quote for anyone interested.
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