How To Build A Diverse and Equitable Workplace : Life Kit You might've heard the phrase "workplace diversity" in recent months. If you're a leader in your workplace — especially if you're white — this episode is for you. Here are some actionable steps to take to make your organization more equitable and inclusive.

Workplace Diversity Goes Far Past Hiring. How Leaders Can Support Employees Of Color

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This is NPR's LIFE KIT. I'm Anjuli Sastry.


SASTRY: Workplace diversity - it's one of those phrases that's been thrown around a lot these days. After the killing of George Floyd earlier this summer sparked protests against racial injustice nationwide, it seemed like every company was putting out a statement condemning racism and committing to racial equity within their organizations. But the numbers give us the real story. A 2020 Mercer report found that across industries in the U.S., Black and Latino populations are underrepresented at every career level above support staff. In 2019, there were only five Black CEOs in the Fortune 500. And while almost half of U.S. companies have publicly committed to racial or ethnic equality efforts, the Mercer report finds only 13% of these companies offer programs specifically targeted toward women of color.

So what are companies getting wrong? Michelle Silverthorn has an idea.

MICHELLE SILVERTHORN: I spent a long time teaching diversity and inclusion, right? So I spend a lot of time teaching about unconscious bias and all the, you know, barriers to success and, you know, telling people what strategies and working on those strategies and stuff. And as I did that work, I realized that you are missing a huge part of the story.

SASTRY: Michelle is the founder and CEO of Inclusion Nation and author of the book "Authentic Diversity: How To Change The Workplace For Good." She travels across the country advising company leaders about issues that range from recruitment to hiring to building inclusive spaces for employees of color and other marginalized identities.

A common issue she's found in a lot of company cultures - telling employees that if you assimilate, you'll be successful.

SILVERTHORN: Well, if you just do this - right? - if you lean in - right? - if you change your hair and your accent and your clothes and your tone of voice and your - you change all of those things, then of course you're going to succeed in the workplace. It's a lie.

SASTRY: It's just not true. Michelle and the data to tell us about the cycle. Even though people of color try to assimilate into their workplaces, the companies end up with the same results again and again. Why?

SILVERTHORN: This workplace is structured to benefit predominately white, predominately males in order to succeed. And unless we are willing to dismantle those structures and put into place systems that are actually equal and actually fair, then all we're going to do is we're going to recruit really diverse classes and we're going to bring a lot of diversity at the beginning. And year after year after year after year, what you're going to see is the top and the leadership - they are going to stay the same way that they've always been since, like, the 1920s.

SASTRY: Instead of telling people of color to change in order to succeed, Michelle says it's time to change how companies are built and run. And she's got some suggestions for leaders. We're first going to talk to Michelle about her work and how she's pushing companies to make big changes. Then we're going to talk about how to make diversity happen in your office right now. In this episode, we're going to dismantle the workplace. Managers, listen up.


SASTRY: A quick note before we start - you'll hear Michelle use the term BIPOC, which means Black, Indigenous and people of color. She calls it imperfect shorthand but says it's important because it recognizes not every person of color has had the same experience.

I started by asking Michelle about what sorts of actions companies have taken to diversify in the past, why it hasn't worked and what they should be doing instead.

SILVERTHORN: We have these old rules of diversity that we're living under, right? And the old rules of diversity for me are like, you have to just make the business case. If you just tell people that diversity makes us lots of money, that's enough and they'll listen to you and they'll be fine, right?

But you make the business case, and then what happens? You know, you hire all those diverse people and you do all this work, and the numbers don't change. And then you're like, well, we're making just as much money as we were before, so what was the point of us putting all that extra effort behind it? So, no, that's not going to happen, right? If that's the only reason you're doing it, because you think it makes you more money and you think that, you know, BIPOC people are widgets and we only exist to make profit, then of course you're going to fail over and over again. That's the first reason.

The second reason I think we're not getting more is because when we tell folks, OK, fine, here's the thing; I get that you have bias and bias exists, but it's OK, right? It's OK that everyone's biased. It's OK that, you know, we have these unconscious biases. Here are all these little interrupters that you can put in. It's like we're telling a 5-year-old, just soothe yourself and you'll be fine.

But let me tell you what bias feels like when you are a marginalized minority in the workplace. Let me tell you what it feels like as a Black woman, what it feels like when I'm not thought of as equally competent. That is what bias feels like. And then just telling people that's OK and here we have it and here are some interrupters to put in place, that's not going to change anything. So that's the second reason.

The third reason - I think we're just not talking about race, right? We have this whole idea in corporate America that, you know, the cream rises to the top, and everyone who doesn't rise to the top, they didn't work hard enough. But you know what, y'all? Let me explain to you what anti-Blackness means. It means that when you look at me, you think that I am less than and you think I'm not qualified as, and then you put into place systems that promote how a certain in-group succeeds, which in this case is going to be white men because they are the long leaders of the workplace - how they talk with each other, how they compete with each other, the culture that they put together. And so you continue to put into place those mechanisms and those structures that are telling you that, you know, unless you're able to, like, do everything you can to strip away who your identity, what your culture is to assimilate to that, then you're not going to succeed.


SASTRY: So I want to get into the work that you're doing now because you've been doing this for a while. And I want to get into some of those strategies for trying to fix the problem. And I'm wondering, like, how does the hiring pipeline and recruiting factor into all this?

SILVERTHORN: OK, so say you have a company - right? - and the company is like a - let's say it's a tech company out in Silicon Valley. Let's just make it that, right? I'm going to say it's a tech company in Silicon Valley. And said tech company says that we are only going to recruit at X, Y, Z schools because based on our experience, it's only the students at X, Y, Z schools who have those skills that we need to succeed, right?

SASTRY: Which I've heard, yeah - which we've all heard.

SILVERTHORN: Yeah, which they do a lot. But here's my question to you. What are those skills, and why are you using X, Y, Z schools as shorthand to do that recruiting, you know? If that is what you are going to do, then you will never change anything, right?

But if you are going to do this work of saying, OK, here are the skills and the competencies and the behaviors that I have identified that will make someone a success and I am not going to be - I'm going to say it - I'm not going to be lazy and then just say that, oh, only the people who went to these schools are the only ones who can be successful. As a recruiter, as a hirer, as an HR manager, as a leader, I'm going to do the work and say, OK - you know what? - I'm going to have to go into different schools in different areas of this country, and not just HBCUs - like, other schools that have predominately Black and brown populations. And I'm going to go into those schools, and I'm going to do the work to investigate, you know, where - how can I create, like, a pipeline to my organization? How can I create an environment so that they can look at my organization and say, this is a place where I can succeed? So all of those, you know, considerations have to go in.

But we keep on saying, oh, the pipeline's broken. But, like, it's not broken. You're just looking in one place.

SASTRY: And I guess that's my question, though - right? - is how do you change the mindset of folks who don't want to do that extra work? Like, I think it is a lot of - you're mentioning hard work. I think it's a lot of laziness. Like, how do you - have you talked to leadership who've given you that kind of answer?

SILVERTHORN: Absolutely. And it's also, we got to hire, we got to hire fast, right? So we hire what we know, and we hire the people who know our friends. And if you are...

SASTRY: Who look like us and know us.

SILVERTHORN: Who look like us.


SILVERTHORN: And if you're only hiring kids from Caltech at that first level, then those kids from Caltech only going to know other kids from Caltech, and they're going to hire more kids from Caltech. And that's how it's going to keep going, right?

Here's the other thing that happens. Sometimes they don't hire out. They hire outside of the school, right? They go to a different school or they choose someone different, but they only choose, like, one of them, right? And when that one person stumbles, they can be like, oh, well, of course. Then no one else gets a spot anymore. And that one person is always a Black and brown person. So that's the other part of it, right? That's where the racism pits its - you know, brings up its head and says, well, I already knew that they weren't going to succeed, so, oh, well; we're not going to try that again.


SASTRY: So we talked a little bit about pipeline and recruiting and how that factors into the structure. Do you have any thoughts on improving the promotions process and salary transparency and how that is kind of - plays into the whole diversity aspect and improving diversity?

SILVERTHORN: I mean, do I? You know...

SASTRY: Oh, yeah. We're here for it.

SILVERTHORN: So with salary transparency and with promotions - right? - the thing that we're talking about there is, do I have the opportunity to succeed, right? You know, when you look at your pay structure, when you look at your compensation, are you actually fairly compensating people, and not just their, you know, their base compensation, their bonus as well - are they being compensated adequately and equally across gender and identity and ethnic groups, right?

Or that we do, like, a job roles audit where we look at the job descriptions. Are these job descriptions, including the internal job descriptions, are they free from biased languages? Are the required qualifications so specific that they are excluding people who are marginalized identities? Is there - you know, look at the performance standards. What does internal advancement look like for your BIPOC employees?

SASTRY: And I think that's interesting that you mention that, too, because I think during this time, during this pandemic, during this time of remote work in this financial crisis that we're in, a lot of leadership and managers might fall back on, well, we don't have money to give promotions. We don't have financial stability. Everything's frozen.


SASTRY: There's a lot more that plays into that. There are other ways to support employees.

SILVERTHORN: Right. I mean, there is - you have to be a people-centered leader because you may not have any money to do this, but that doesn't change how you can be as a leader. That doesn't mean that you can't talk about someone's career goals and their values and whether they're able to bring those values into the workplace. That doesn't mean that you cannot sponsor and champion the person. You don't need extra money to do that. So all of the work I'm asking you to do, I want you to think about the people who are struggling and not succeeding in your organization - that you, as a leader, are failing them. So maybe you don't have the money to, like, give out bonuses, but you can at least help them design ways to do their work autonomously.

So if I - you know, as a Black woman immigrant from Jamaica who is a millennial and a mother of two, here are the ways that I would like to do work that might not be the same way that my husband, who is a white American male, straight man from Michigan - he might do it differently. And my way and his way can still be used to make sure that this organization succeeds. It is on you as a leader to really create the environment and the climate and the leadership we need to allow that to happen. So that is what I want from leaders to do.


SASTRY: I mean, I'm not going to ignore the fact that we're two women of color having this conversation. You, as a woman of color, do this work where you're advising leadership about these conversations. And I'm just kind of curious, like, have you seen change?

SILVERTHORN: OK, I will just say two things about this. You don't do this work in a year. You don't do this work in two years. It doesn't take five years. It takes a lifetime, right?

SASTRY: Takes time.

SILVERTHORN: It is a lifetime of putting into place systems and processes that may not - and I really wanted to say that because I feel like people will do this work and say, well, I started this six months ago, and I still haven't seen the results, right?

So what do I want companies to do and what has been working? When you can give me a manager or a leader or an executive who can look at a high-potential minority and say, this person is someone who I'm going to put my weight behind - right? - this person is the person I'm going to speak of in rooms where their name is not being spoken; this person I'm going to introduce to the sales folks and to my really great customers and to my clients who are really well recognized, I'm going to make sure that they have access to the work. I am putting my weight and my name and my reputation on the line because I do believe in this person. And I want the people in that C-suite to do that work for a lot more people than just people who look like them.

Specifically for the people who are listening to this who are managers and who are leaders, go look at the business books that you have on your bookshelf. Are they only other white men? Like, do you have - are you getting ideas and insight and advice from people who don't look like you? Let's stop replicating the workplace of a hundred years ago and let's start creating a workplace that works for people right now. And, really, it starts with self-interrogating yourself.

And once you start there, which by the way is a long journey in itself, then keep on doing the rest of the work. And the rest of the work starts with thinking about, what are the actions that I as an individual can take to ensure that those structures that have long benefited me, that they can be changed to benefit everyone else. So I want you to look at structures and don't just say, oh, that's just the way they've always been, right? We've always done our feedback that way. We've always done our hiring that way. We've always done our recruiting that way. That's just the way it's always been. We've always done our compensation that way.

If this pandemic showed us anything in this life, it is that if you give corporate America, like, a month to completely transform how they do work, they can do it. So why can't we do it with racism, too? We can do it.


SASTRY: Thanks again to Michelle Silverthorn. She's the founder and CEO of Inclusion Nation and author of the book "Authentic Diversity: How To Change The Workplace For Good."

Now we're going to turn to Minda Harts. Minda, like Michelle, is an author and CEO working to change workplaces from the inside out. Both her book and her company are called The Memo, and they're all about empowering women of color to secure their own seats at the table.

Minda interviewed more than 100 women of color for her book, and 70% of those women felt managers were not invested in their success. So now Minda's going to give us some concrete takeaways for company leaders and white allies to improve workplace diversity right now. Her first suggestion is don't make BIPOC employees do all the work to create change.

MINDA HARTS: I think we need leaders who are empathetic to the fact that Black and brown people shouldn't have all the answers, right? We did not create this system of oppression in the workplace. And so I think it's going to require leaders to listen, maybe ask the right questions, but then, again, educate themselves and then take action because it's not up to people of color to create a system of equity.

SASTRY: Next, think about how you compensate employees. Get data on who gets paid what.

HARTS: Start with pay equity. I think that leaders can hold themselves accountable by doing a pay - equal pay audit to make sure that everyone is being paid fairly and compensated because - for example, if Black women make 62 cents on a dollar to a white man, then let's look at the statistics and make sure that we can close that wage gap because that's something that we have control over and that's something that takes intentionality.

SASTRY: Minda says to make sure you're giving your BIPOC employees the same opportunities you would for a white employee. Go out of your way to nurture existing talent.

HARTS: Because I think one thing that I often hear is, we don't know where to find them, right? Like, we would hire women of color, Black women if we knew where they were. Well, oftentimes, they're right in your company in an employee resource group, or they've been there for, you know, many, many years and they've hit their head on the middle rung of the ladder because nobody's invested in their success.


SASTRY: Another way to invest in diversity at your company - support employee resource groups. I started one at NPR for marginalized genders and intersex people of color. We do events and give employees that historically don't get the kind of support and place to feel accepted that space. But Minda says, as a leader, you need to invest more than just your well wishes to employee resource groups.

HARTS: Employee resource groups are critical to the success of the advancement of underrepresented communities in the workforce because this is an opportunity where you already have people who self-identified as leaders, they've taken on leadership roles, oftentimes as a volunteer. And so, again, I think that we're not leveraging the leadership that's taking place in these ERGs and making sure that we have an executive sponsor that's invested in that success.

The other part of that is making sure that the ERG has a budget. It's really hard to scale diversity with no budget. You know, ask the marketing team to do work without a budget. It's going to be very hard, right? So I think that we also have to look at ERGs in the same way.

SASTRY: Minda says it's also about creating a better working culture. She thinks company leaders need to set an example. What does that mean? Creating a zero-tolerance policy around sexism, abuse, harassment and microaggressions.

HARTS: I really do hope that our managers will think about, how do we create a culture of zero tolerance when it comes to micro and macroaggressions because just saying that so-and-so doesn't mean well is not good enough because eventually, that is a lot of harm on that person that's on the receiving end of that. And so I just want people to think about, again, humanizing the workforce.

SASTRY: And finally, remember; this is a new chapter for the workforce. Don't be afraid of trying new things.

HARTS: Right now, we really have a unique opportunity to make the workplace better than we found it. And there are no rules, right? We get to establish what the new rules look like. And I think that leaders should really be empowered to lean into their courage and push aside their caution in this time - at this time in our country because nobody is going to benefit if we're cautious. And I'm excited to see what companies can do to make the workplace better than we found it.


SASTRY: Thanks to Minda Harts for talking to me for this episode. And also, thanks again to Michelle Silverthorn.

For more LIFE KIT, check out our other episodes. We've got an episode on how to deal with microaggressions, another on talking to kids about race and lots more. You can find those at If you like LIFE KIT and want even more, subscribe to our newsletter at

And as always, here's a completely random tip.

CARLIE: Hi. This is Carlie (ph) from Seattle, and I'm going on a trip this weekend to a cabin. And I had the idea to order one of those meal delivery kits so that we don't have to go shopping, and we have the exact right amount of food, and we know which - like, if we have a grill, we can just use the grill. And then there's no waste to take home and no worrying about extra coolers or ice or anything 'cause it actually comes packed in ice too. So I hope that helps. Bye.

SASTRY: Also, we always want to hear your tips. Leave us a voicemail at 202-216-9823, or email us at

This episode was produced by Andee Tagle. Meghan Keane is the managing producer, and Beth Donovan is our senior editor. I'm Anjuli Sastry. Thanks for listening.


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