Organizations of all stripes are struggling to figure out how to make their team members feel engaged, included, and capable of speaking in their authentic voice at work so they thrive in their roles and stay with their companies. Their desire to create forward-thinking and effective diversity and inclusion programs is palpable. The question is, how?
Lingo Live CLO Jesse Abing joins a panel of Diversity & Inclusion experts to answer that question next month at the Humans not Resources meetup. They’ll discuss practical, time-tested ways to foster inclusivity at your workplace.
We pulled Jesse aside, (right after a recent trip to China and India), to ask why this topic resonates with him, and how he has seen it evolve of the course of his tenure at Lingo Live.
Why are you interested in diversity and inclusion? What personal experience have you had with it?
About 18 years ago, I started working with immigrant communities in my local area. I was a Spanish major in college in Iowa. Hasidic Jews had set up two turkey factories nearby and brought immigrants from Eastern Europe, primarily from Hasidic Jewish communities, Ukraine, and Mexico to work in these turkey factories. They had a sign at the border that advertised working at the factory. I would go into these communities door-to-door evenings and weekends and I would census the community.
We would talk over a can of Coke. They were super-inviting. It was really clear to me that these communities were very separated from the old timers who had always lived in this town. They brought all these new ways of thinking and being, and they weren’t integrating at all. In a lot of ways, the people who had been there for a long time really tried to control the space, and would let the newcomers move into the center of the community–they literally lived on the periphery, in a trailer park on the outside of the town.
It was weird for me to see that. I wanted to do whatever I could to make these people feel welcomed and included, and to become part of the fabric of the community. I wanted to bridge the gap between the existing and incoming communities, but it was really difficult to do. If I talked to the pre-existing community members, some were very hostile to the idea that the newcomers would change what it meant to be a part of that community. Others were super welcoming and wanted to provide free legal and medical services and host community dances. It was difficult and heartbreaking to see that not everyone was that open-minded.
I think the future of the world, if it’s going to be a successful human race, is one where we have to all see each other as equal and one of the same. The more we can get people to come together and connect and learn about each other. That’s how we will get through the xenophobia and the hate that keeps us divided, and move us toward a more inclusive mindset where we can work toward mutual respect, acceptance and understanding. That’s where it started for me, and that’s where I see this diversity and inclusion work going.
How have you seen the conversation about diversity and inclusion change over the course of the past few years?
When we first started talking about language and communication coaching as it related to diversity and inclusion, people didn’t see us as a part of that conversation. They thought our space was language teaching. That’s changed. People now understand more and more how connecting people of different backgrounds and empowering them with linguistic and cultural knowledge and skills, and giving them a voice to speak up for themselves is a part of that diversity and inclusion process.
The notion of belonging has also come into the picture. It’s moved away from the notion on engagement and into belonging–the idea that people should feel safe being themselves in the workplace. We’ve started thinking about how we can effect and measure belonging, instead of engagement.
People are also starting to understand that diversity is nothing without inclusion first. Inclusion is a mindset, and with it, your diversity initiatives actually have a chance. Without it, you get a bunch of different groups of people who stay with their own kind in the workplace. Now the thinking is more inclusion-first, because it leads to a more meaningful kind of diversity where people actually connect with others who are different from them.
What is “authentic voice”?
It’s about the way we understand and express our truth, free from fear of the expectations of others or fear of consequences. We’re usually constantly mitigating how we express ourselves because we’re afraid we might get an adverse reaction, or we might get fired.
Another piece of it is finding out what your authentic voice is. It’s not just speaking without a filter. It takes work to uncover it. Sometimes you don’t even realize what filters you’ve placed on your communication because it’s so ingrained. Most of us, when we speak to someone, we often project past experiences onto them which affects the way we communicate. Part of the process is becoming aware of those filters and figuring out who you are apart from all of that. It requires a lot of self-reflection and risk-taking, and the freedom to push boundaries in a safe space where you can get genuine, constructive feedback. We have to take chances to really uncover who we are and what our authentic voice is.
When we’re talking about multilingual speakers, it’s also about equipping people with the tools to make informed choices about how they express themselves without prescribing a certain way of being or acting or speaking. So we’re not saying, that as a Chinese engineer in the American workplace, you have to speak and act in a particular way to be accepted. Rather we are equipping you to make choices about how you want to act with the knowledge of how people may perceive you if you make those choices. The idea is that you are able to speak from your truth, free from fear of consequences, with the tools to make informed choices.
For example, I grew up in a rural area without a lot of access to academic or professional ways of communicating, but through my education, I’ve gained access to an academic way of communicating. My mom doesn’t have that access, so she would have trouble being taken seriously at an academic conference. She’s more limited in what she can do. For me, there’s an identity crisis involved in that, but I can choose when I want to flex those muscles and when I don’t. When you give people more options, then they’re more empowered to make that choice, instead of only having one communication option.
How does this all relate to employee retention, in your experience?
When we can align with true selves more fully in our environment, then we can just be instead of trying so hard to fit in all the time. We feel like we belong. We feel less tension with the world around us and less like we have to find another place to be, so we’re less likely to leave.
Do you think it’s important for HR and other leaders to come together for events like Humans not Resources? Why or why not?
Yes, absolutely. This kind of dialogue helps us to evolve our mindsets. It helps to start the conversation in these spaces, where we can share our different experiences and opinions. I would encourage us to take it one step further and invite each other to come into each other’s organizations for a few days to experience our problems and the successes, so that we can have a deeper understanding.
No one will have the full answer in isolation. The more we talk, the more momentum we will have. It won’t just be these companies in Silicon Valley who are woke and who get it.
I hope that people who come to this event will realize resources they have to draw upon there. I’m always interested in talking to people about these issues. I would invite people to lean on us (the panelist). I’m happy to consult with them about these issues.
I hope that the event will also start to shift people’s mindsets.
I think a lot of the time people talk about why diversity and inclusion is important, but what the panelists and I bring to the table is specific paths to inclusion and belonging, ways to implement it–through the research that I’ve done in social learning theories for example. Hopefully what we have to share aligns with what people are thinking, but maybe it also creates some “aha” moments that challenge their current approach, like, “Oh, I hadn’t thought about it that way. Maybe that’s why this initiative hasn’t been working. We should something with this underlying philosophy rather than the way we thought about it before.”
Humans not Resources is a Meetup for human resource professionals and other people & culture leaders. They host industry leaders who share about the latest trends in people operations and culture, so that you can keep up with the rapidly evolving needs of your modern workforce. Come and hone your skills while growing an amazing network of people-focused professionals.