What does the recent SCOTUS decision mean for DEI&B?

October 3, 2023

This week’s guest is Dr. Ella F. Washington, an organizational psychologist, DEI&B expert, and author of the book "The Necessary Journey: Making Real Progress on Equity and Inclusion". Ella is the Founder and CEO of Ellavate Solutions, a Professor of Practice at Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business and the Co-host of Gallup's Center of Black Voices Cultural Competence Podcast. Dr. Washington continues to deepen her research pipeline and thought leadership as a Gallup Senior Scientist studying race, strengths and other DEI workplace topics. In the wake of the recent SCOTUS decision, Dr. Ella explains why companies can and should recommit to DEI&B.

- Hello, everyone. I am Chris Hyams, CEO of Indeed, my pronouns are he and him, and welcome to the next episode of Here To Help. For accessibility, I'll offer a quick visual description. I am a middle-aged man with dark-rimmed glasses. I'm wearing a black t-shirt. Behind me are books and LPs. At Indeed, our mission is to help people get jobs. This is what gets us out of bed in the morning and what keeps us going all day, and what powers that mission is people. Here to Help is a look at how experience, strength, and hope inspires people to want to help others. My guest today is Dr. Ella F. Washington, an organizational psychologist, DEI expert, and author of the book, "The Necessary Journey: Making Real Progress on Equity and Inclusion." She is founder and CEO of Ellavate Solutions, a professor of practice at Georgetown University's McDonough School of Business, and the co-host of Gallup's Center of Black Voices "Cultural Competence" podcast. Dr. Washington continues to deepen her research pipeline and thought leadership as a Gallup Senior Scientist studying race, strengths, and other DEI workplace topics. Dr. Washington, thank you so much for joining me today.

- Hello, hello, Chris. It's so great to be here. Thank you for having me.

- Well, let's start a little bit with your journey and background to becoming what you are today, an expert in organizational psychology and DEI. What were your own personal experiences that led you to want to pursue this field of research?

- So I grew up in Durham, North Carolina, and though I don't live there anymore, I always have a great love for how I grew up and kind of the Southern culture, all of the good and the bad that comes with that. And, you know, I was always the only Black person in my AP classes in high school, and I was actually kind of used to that. And I didn't recognize that that was a space where I didn't feel super included or that I really had a strong sense of belonging until I had the exact opposite experience in college. I decided to attend Spelman College, which is a historically Black, all-women's institution in Atlanta, Georgia. And there I was not only not the only one, everywhere I looked there were people who looked like me, which was such a great sense of belonging. But it also caused me to want to understand more about how we as humans just naturally have these in-groups and out-groups. So even at Spelman, though on the outside it looked like everyone was, you know, homogeneous, that couldn't be further from the truth. Though race and gender may not have been the diversity factors most salient, there were so many other factors of diversity: where you were from, how you grew up, the type of school you went to for high school, your interests in things like music and all different types of things, political interests. All of those things became more salient factors of diversity. And so it was fascinating to me and I wanted to study it. Went off and got my PhD at Northwestern, at Kellogg School of Management, and have been working my entire career around the thought that, you know, we spend so much of our time at work that I believe it shouldn't suck. That's my big-picture mission when I talk about workplace utopia, is really to get people in workplaces where they have the opportunity to thrive.

- People have heard these terms and these acronyms, DEI, diversity, equity, inclusion, for so long now that it's entirely possible that some of us have lost our grounding in that. And in the beginning of the book, you offer some very concrete definitions, and I think just to ground us for the rest of the conversation, can you explain DE&I?

- Absolutely. So diversity is the real or perceived differences amongst people that affect their interactions and relationships. And so this definition does encompass all types of diversity, not just demographic diversity. I often talk about the fact that there are so many layers and levels of diversity beyond those things we can often just see, for example, when someone walks in the room. When we talk about equity, equity is the quality of being fair and impartial with the understanding that all people are not starting from the same place of equality, and that consequently, there must be some systemic and systematic changes that create opportunities for everyone to succeed. And inclusion, when you think about inclusion, inclusion is the active creation of environments where everyone feels welcomed and valued and respected, as well as the feedback loop of understanding that the things that we often do to include other people, because to include is a verb, right? You actually have to do something to include others. But you have to have that feedback loop to make sure that thing I thought I was doing to include someone, making sure that actually had the intended impact. So to me, inclusion is both the verb and that feeling of belonging created by that feedback loop of understanding if what I'm doing is actually working or not.

- So I want to dig into a whole set of aspects of the book and of your research. I saw you earlier drinking from a mug that says workplace utopia on it. So that's obviously an important concept. Can you talk about what you mean by a workplace utopia?

- So the fact of the matter is that there's no perfect workplace, right? So this is not about unicorns and butterflies. I wish it was. But what I'm really talking about with workplace utopia is more of the sense that, you know, we all share the opportunity to thrive in our organizations. For me, workplace utopia is an environment that I can laugh at work and I can be my authentic self, and that, you know, I can challenge norms and status quos. That's what it looks like for me. For every single person, it's going to look a bit different. But the more that we talk about it, the more that we kind of get on the same page around what this future workplace could look like, I think the more that we get, you know, a step closer. And I'd love to know what workplace utopia looks like for you, if you have any thoughts on that.

- Ooh, we could probably do a whole podcast on that one. But I would say that for us at Indeed, and we talked about this a little bit before the podcast, a big shift came for us when we started to understand that there was unnecessary, I don't know what the right word is, just integration of how we show up in the outside world and who we are on the inside. And that DEI for us is not just about creating a better place of work, that's really important, but it's really what is our impact on the world, and in particular for us in the world of work, how do we create more economic equity in the world? And so who do we need to be in order to do that work? Which then means that the work that we're doing is not just internally focused, but it is about how we show up, how do we make the company successful, how do we improve society, and how do we make a better workplace for everyone? And so utopia would be for me, I think, real integration between all of those different areas, that when it's a better workplace, it means that we're more successful as a business and we're having a better impact on society. And when those things are in alignment and in harmony, then I think we're kind of doing our job. But thanks for asking the question there. So there's so much to dig into. I want to start maybe with, so the book is called "The Necessary Journey: Making Real Progress on Equity and Inclusion." I want to get to the journey part, 'cause that's a really important organizing principle, but I want to talk a little bit about how you wrote the book. You chose to tell a bunch of very personal stories, and you opened with this amazing quote from Lena Waithe, who has actually been a partner of ours for the last few years in a program called Rising Voices that we've been doing, and Lena is extraordinary. But this quote of hers, she says, "I'm writing my story so that others might see fragments of themselves." This is an important part of this podcast, is getting to know people and their stories. Why did you choose to write a book like this in this way, through a series of stories?

- So I noticed that, you know, when I looked at the landscape of the information that was out there, you know, my practitioner and academic colleagues have great, to your point, academic textbooks. But still, when I had conversations with leaders like yourself, the question always became, you know, where are we on the journey and how do we know if we're making progress? And what I found is that oftentimes people weren't seeing themselves in the journey at all. You know, it was like kind of this thing off to the side or something that they were seeing on a website or hearing from HR, but there was not that connection of like the human side of what it really means to be on a DEI journey. So when we say journey, you know, we use that word often. Maybe you're on a fitness journey or maybe you're on a healing journey. We're all on different journeys. Our career journey, right? At Indeed. So, you know, we know this concept of journey, but we need to unpack what that actually meant, you know, when it comes to DE&I. And so for me, stories was one way to bring people into the conversation. My goal was that within the stories that I share, that you can see yourself in at least one person in the book, whether it's a CEO struggling with a difficult decision, whether it's a frontline manager not sure how to have these conversations, whether it's a frontline employee that just started in an organization and not really sure if the organization is living up to their values, right? And so that's why, for me, you know, stories are so powerful. As someone who teaches all the time, I know my students don't always remember, you know, all of my frameworks or slides, but they often remember the real-life stories that I share. And I think that's true of most people in these spaces. And so I wanted to provide the information, but also have stories really bring it to life.

- So let's talk a little bit about the word journey. So the framework of what you're introducing, and you have this whole maturity model behind it, is that, and I think maybe for me, the easiest way to think about the way that you lay it out is what a journey is not. So the alternative is a program. So you say that part of the problem is a lot of organizations think of DEI as a program, but instead they should think of it as a journey. So can you talk about what's problematic about the program analogy and why the journey analogy is more effective?

- So when we think about programs, they're usually for one particular purpose, they're a point in time. Sometimes you have metrics, many times you don't, and lots of programs, you know, help us to feel good, right? So maybe they they're a celebration or maybe it's a training program that we're learning more information. And programs are great and they're part of a strong DEI strategy, but what I often say is a proliferation of programs is not a strategy. And so when we're thinking about having a strategic approach to DE&I, to use the word you used earlier, and this is aligned with my maturity model, integration, right? We really have to see DE&I integrated at every part of our business, both internally and externally. And to do that, we have to understand that, you know, it's not just a checklist of programs. So programs are certainly a part of the journey, it just can't be the whole journey.

- You're an author, you're a speaker, you are a professor, but you're also the CEO of Ellavate Solutions and a Senior Scientist at Gallup. How do performing these different roles inform each other, and how does it give you a different set of insight than you might have if you weren't so busy doing all of the different things you're doing?

- I know, the way you read that, it's like, wow, okay, I'm really busy. But it's interesting, you know, anytime someone gets my bio they're like, "You do all this stuff," but for me, it all has synergy. It's all going towards kind of the same end goal of thinking about diversity, equity, and inclusion in the workplace in ways that touch people in their real lives, right? And so as a Senior Scientist at Gallup, I'm able to connect with the global polls that they do and understand what is the pulse of people on these different topics and issues. I enjoy each of those roles a bit differently, but they certainly all do feed at each other. I'll be honest, there have been times that I'm like, well, maybe I should stop doing this or do that differently, and I'm like, ugh, I would miss having my hands in real-life practice, or, oh my goodness, I would miss my students so much. They give me, you know, a sense of hope and joy that is different from when I'm working with my clients. So for now, all of the things kind of intersect and work together.

- You've structured these discussions about looking at this journey, company by company, and you have a number of companies that people have heard of, like PwC and Best Buy, Infosys, Slack, and a number of companies that maybe people haven't heard of, in different industries or smaller ones. There's a really amazing story about Denny's. And I think most folks in America know Denny's, but for those who don't, it is a chain of restaurants mostly focused on breakfast, but they're open all the time. I've known Denny's my whole life. I'd never thought of, wow, Denny's also probably has DEI journey that they're on as well. And so it's a really fascinating story, if you could just share a little bit about that story with us.

- Absolutely. So, you know, I grew up going to Denny's, and remembering in the '90s when Denny's took a hit to their reputation. You know, as a Black woman, I would often hear family members say, "Uh, we're not sure if we want to go to Denny's. You know they're racist, right?" And so I remember these conversations. And it's funny, even as I was doing a book tour in North Carolina, again, where I'm from, the audience was like, "Yeah, there's still some of that. You know, we remember when it was like that." So back in the '90s, Denny's actually went through a class action lawsuit. They settled for $54 million, and this lawsuit was based on racial discrimination. And so what happened is, is, like, through the lawsuit, they had to start paying attention to DEI in a way they never had before. At first they had some resistance. You know, the leadership at the time wanted to kind of just pay the lawsuit and move on. But, you know, whomever was in the room having the conversations took it as an opportunity to not just do the bare minimum, but to actually allow this to be an opportunity for change. And so what I love about their story is that they didn't just check the box. They didn't just stay at compliance where many organizations in their situation would stay. They started thinking about, okay, how do we understand the current problems and how do we move beyond them? How do we train everyone in our organization on things like unconscious bias? How do we become trailblazers by having the first chief diversity officer in that particular role in the United States? And so, again, so many times that they could have said, "You know, this is too hard. Let's just do the bare minimum. Let's stay out of the negative spotlight." But what I've seen with Denny's is they've worked over the past 30 years to not only shift their reputation, but to have real impact on, not only the people who work there, but their customers and the communities that they serve. And so they're an organization that has shown that the journey can take a long time. You know, it's been 30 years and they're still working towards becoming, you know, who they want to be, right? And we all are, and that's what I kind of admire about the journey. And now if you look, they've won so many awards when it comes to racial diversity, gender diversity, creating opportunities for entrepreneurship for people from lower socioeconomic backgrounds. I mean, you name it, they really are trailblazers. And what I admire the most about them is their candor to tell their story. You know, they tell their story as much as possible, and it really, I think, does help other people to see, okay, no matter where we're starting, you know, we can improve, and it will take time, but we can see progress.

- These words, diversity, equity, inclusion, have very different meanings in different parts of the world based on what diversity actually might look like. And you have an example in the book of Sodexo, and maybe if we can talk about the larger issue of what some of those differences are, but maybe how this story of Sodexo kind of helps illustrate it.

- Yeah, so Sodexo is a really interesting story, because when Rohini Anand, who was their chief diversity officer at the time, when she joined the organization, she was excited to join this global organization. Kind of her dream job was to be a chief diversity officer at an organization like this. And unfortunately, within two months of her joining the organization, they were hit with a class action lawsuit for $80 million. And so as you can imagine, you know, her world was turned upside down. This dream job now became a nightmare in some ways. And so, you know, like Denny's, they went on this journey to understand, you know, through focus groups and talking to employees, what was happening and why there was this challenge in the United States, which is where the lawsuit was. However, they noticed when they started to take their strategy global, right? It worked really well in the United States. They had leaders on board. Rohini Anand was promoted to global chief diversity officer and it's like, great, we're on the right path. We got this, right? And then there's the reality of, like, not so much, because when they went into other markets, when they went into their market in China, for example, they noticed that mentorship programs weren't taking off in the same way they were in the US, right? And so what they started to understand is they had to have a global strategy with local-level implementation. So it's great if mentorship is one of our core values as an organization when we think about inclusion in our culture, right? Awesome. But we have to be thoughtful about, what does mentorship look like in these different markets, in these different places around the world, and how does culture, you know, play a role in that? In some cultures, it is not seen as appropriate for a man and a woman to, you know, be out in public at lunch or something, even if it is for business purposes, right? And so even if we don't understand or don't agree, we must be thoughtful about how these different cultural elements should be implemented in these different places of the world. Because at the end of the day, we want this to be for the experience of our employees or our customers or those folks that we're trying to have an impact on. So there is no one-size-fits-all approach to DEI, which is challenging, but I've seen organizations really do well, like Sodexo for example. Again, it takes time, so this didn't happen overnight. But with Sodexo now, they are one of the best in class when it comes to their global diversity, equity, and inclusion programs because they have a global strategy, but they're very thoughtful about how it has an impact in each of their global markets.

- The opportunity for remote work has had some really positive impacts in terms of both diversity and inclusion. From a diversity perspective, a company like Indeed that happens to have physical operations in a handful of cities, some of the cities are, just by the nature of those cities, less diverse. And once we started hiring remote employees, we opened up to just a completely different slate of candidates that we could bring on board. We could hire people in Atlanta before we opened, and we now have an office in Atlanta. That makes a huge difference for us, given where some of our offices are. But from an inclusion perspective, the other thing that's really interesting is that, I've heard this talking to Black employees at Indeed, is that what might normally be an opportunity for microaggressions or other sort of challenging situations, the ability to work from home offers a completely different sort of net of psychological safety. And so thinking about remote, hybrid work, return to office through this lens, what are some of the things that you're seeing? Where do you think that plays? We could probably do a whole podcast just on this, but I think it's really interesting to think about looking at this issue in particular through that lens.

- It's really interesting that as 2020 and 2021 happened and people were starting to kind of return to work, as you say, the differences in sentiment. When we asked people of color and women employees, that they were not really gung-ho on coming back into the office. They weren't excited about it and some flat out didn't want to go. I think organizations should be really thoughtful about how they can, you know, mirror some of those things that people are experiencing at home. So maybe it is having smaller group dialogues and conversations where people don't feel like maybe they're put on the spot as much. It is the ability to have those courageous conversations when someone does say a microaggression. It's easier to disengage when you're on Zoom and we can just get off, right? It's harder when we have to, again, go to the lunchroom together or what have you and see each other the rest of the day, even if we don't have any more meetings. And so we have to be thoughtful about that. And I've seen organizations do a lot of good work in thinking about things like performance management and how to make sure it's equitable for hybrid and remote employees. I haven't seen as much conversation around making sure the work environment in person is inclusive, and, you know, what can we learn actually from those at-home experiences that we can mirror in the office in different ways?

- So one of the big challenges for any organization in really working towards real transformation in the DEI space is all of the forces that sort of oppose it, both internally and externally. How does an organization navigate those types of challenges?

- I've seen organizations go through these DEI change efforts, and you have some really loud resisters at the beginning. If we can connect with those folks and understand what's really bothering you, like, what are you really concerned about? Is it just because you feel like you don't know how to do this, right? And so you're resisting because you haven't been trained well? Is there some deep-rooted challenge that you want to talk about? Is it the what-about-me scenario that often happens? Like, well, what about me? What's going to happen with my position or my place in this organization if we bring in, you know, a bunch more diversity? Ultimately, once we understand what is at the root of people's question and challenge, we can better help them to bring them along the change curve, bring them along. You know, people often resist, again, when they don't feel like they're a part of the conversation as well, like something is being thrust upon them. And so even if you feel like, you know, this is the right thing to do and I don't know why anybody would resist this, I encourage folks to remember that, again, there's no one-size-fits-all, and we have to meet people where they are if we want them to come along with us on this journey, right? If you're running a marathon and you're a seasoned marathon runner and someone's just starting, you got to go with them, right? You got to walk and run a little bit. You have to go through a training program, you have to bring them along with you and not just expect everyone to be running at the same pace.

- So that's the sort of internal piece, which is clearly an ongoing and evolving thing. And then externally, it feels like throughout history, every time that progress is made, there are forces that basically are opposing that progress, and that comes in the form of backlash. We've seen a huge pushback in the US here against ESG after the ideas of ESG started to make progress. And in July you co-authored an article in the Harvard Business Review titled, “Why Companies Can —- and Should -— Recommit to DEI in the Wake of the SCOTUS Decision.” Can you talk a little bit about your points of view and again, how companies can look at those outside forces and how to navigate in the face of those?

- When we think about how these changes in our sociopolitical world are impacting DEI, you know, right now, currently most of them are not actually having a direct impact on what you can do in an organization. So I want to make sure that there's not this, you know, misnomer that DEI is illegal, you can't do it. Most of the rulings that you're talking about, and they are at, more than 30 states have, you know, proceedings happening around laws that are trying to be put in place around DEI. Much of them are for higher education and for organizations that are public, or government institution organizations. So again, a lot of college campuses fall into that, or organizations that receive government funding right from that state. However, that's not to say that we shouldn't pay attention, and these shifts may not encompass the corporate world in the future. So I think it's really right and smart for organizations to be paying attention. What you shouldn't do is just panic and say, okay, we're not doing DEI anymore, right? What we should be doing is being thoughtful about, okay, if we see the trajectory of these things changing, how do we want to show up? Resistance, as I said before, is part of the journey. And so I think this is the moment that we have the opportunity to see where companies really fall, the companies that are really committed. Because it's easy when it's, you know, positively in the media or when everyone's doing it and we can jump on the bandwagon of, you know, $67 billion being pledged to social justice and DEI, as we saw in 2020. That's easy. What's not so easy is when it's no longer popular and we still want to be committed to those values.

- And on that last point, I mean, of the 67 billion that have been committed, the estimate right now is less than 1% of that has actually been deployed. So where do you think we are right now relative to where we maybe hoped in 2020 that we might be heading?

- Part of what I found in 2020 is that there was a lot of hopes and dreams, not a lot of action. And so for me, I'm not surprised where we are today, given the amount of performative statements and the lack of attention to what a DEI strategy really is, to the performative hires that we saw for like chief diversity officer positions that are now kind of disappearing for a lot of organizations. I wish I could say I'm surprised, and if you go back to some interviews I did in 2020, I predicted this. Now, I didn't predict the sociopolitical things that are happening that are conflating these challenges, but it is very clear anytime that you don't have action behind promises, you're going to fall short. Again, I think that organizations who are at a place where they're saying, "Okay, these are truly our values, this is who we want to be and what we stand for," they're actually going to push through. They're going to be the stronger organizations, let's say three or five years from now, because they're going to hold the line, if you will, around these efforts. However, organizations that were kind of looking for a way out anyways, or, you know, only said things in 2020 because everyone else was doing it, we're going to see them fall by the wayside. And unfortunately, I do think we're going to see some, not only backlash effects, but we're going to see some reversal of the progress that a lot of organizations made. DEI has always had the pendulum effect. Like if you look back over history, this is not the first time that we've seen the pendulum go in one direction or another. Unfortunately, it won't be the last time. It's just kind of part of the game. However, you know, I have not ever seen it, and from a historical perspective, it has been more dramatic. The swing has been way further, you know, on both ends. Like in 2020 companies pledging these big promises we'd never seen them do before, and now, you know, the exact opposite happening. Those are the things that I have observed. And while, again, not surprised, doesn't mean that it's not still heartbreaking as we're seeing these things happen.

- Well, as a final question, I always ask the same thing, which is, looking back over the past few years, the world has been through an extraordinary set of challenges, and right now we're facing an incredible set of challenges in this realm. In the midst of all that, what leaves you with some hope for the future?

- What I notice about this next generation is that they're so different from us in so many ways. They have no tolerance for societal issues that they feel like we should have solved decades ago. They're like, what's taking so long? You know, they're not afraid to use their voice to speak out for the things that they believe, and they're even being more thoughtful about what they want work to look like in the future. And so, you know, I'm having conversations with undergrad students around mental health and creating positive work-life balance and integration, and trust me, there are things that, like, my colleagues and I are saying it was 15, 20 years into our career before we even started to think about mental health in the workplace, and they're doing it now. And so I am hopeful for what the workplace of the future will look like with, you know, gen Z at the helm in the next 15 years. Because though they get a bad rap, you know, I see so much hope and promise in this next generation.

- Well, Dr. Ella F. Washington, thank you so much for joining us here today for this conversation, and thank you so much for the work that you're doing and we look forward to hearing more from you in the future.

- Chris, it's been a pleasure. Thank you so much for having me.