From left, S. Mitra Kalita, Daisy Auger-Domínguez, Debi Yadegari, and Michelle Yu at the Charter Workplace Summit.
Credit: Lipofskyphoto.com
November 4, 2022 1:00 AM EDT

There is no pressing workplace challenge in this moment—from attracting talent in a tight labor market to designing a hybrid-work policy to navigating an economic downturn—that can be met without infusing inclusivity into the decision-making process.

“The word ‘inclusivity’ has gotten a lot of attention over the last few years,” Charter columnist S. Mitra Kalita, CEO of URL Media and publisher of Epicenter-NYC, said at the Charter Workplace Summit earlier this month, noting one important trait differentiating the term: “By its very definition, inclusivity versus diversity is more foundational.”

That was the starting premise of the panel Kalita moderated with three organizational leaders focused on creating more inclusive workplaces: Daisy Auger-Domínguez, chief people officer at Vice Media Group; Debi Yadegari, founder and CEO of the manager-training platform Villyge, which focuses on cultivating empathy; and Michelle Yu, founder and CEO of Josie, a coaching platform for parents transitioning back to work. Over the course of the session, the three shared their tactics for making the working world a better place for women, caregivers, workers of color, and other marginalized employees. Below are excerpts of their conversation, edited for space and clarity.

Kalita: How can organizations make inclusivity foundational, as opposed to supplemental?

Auger-Domínguez: I joined Vice on May 11, 2020, and two weeks later George Floyd was murdered. All of a sudden, everybody wanted to talk about race and inclusion. Everybody started talking about, “What do we do? What are the lists? What are the things that we do to recruit?” We don’t have recruitment strategies. We have an inclusive hiring strategy.

That means that everything in our process, including our training for managers, includes an opportunity at every point to think, ‘How do we un-bias decision-making? What are we thinking about when someone is coming into a conversation? Why do we keep on hiring the same people over and over again?’ It’s about embedding it into learning and development programs, embedding it into our behavioral principles for the company, embedding it into our editorial processes. It is using the word ‘inclusive’ not as this word that is randomly thrown out there, but giving it metrics, giving it weight.

Kalita: One thing I’ve written about before is the fact that you cannot be inclusive in organizations unless you’re applying the same principles to your own life. What does that look like for you?

Yadegari: I look at diversity, equity, and belonging through the lens of not just making sure that we have room for different backgrounds, but also acquired diversity through our experiences. I started my career on Wall Street, in big law, and it was there that I first became a working mother. I felt that I was being pushed out—that there wasn’t space for me to live my role as a caregiver and be the lawyer I had always been. We need to make more space in our workplaces for people who have a lot going on in the background, for single mothers, for working fathers, for people who have tons of caregiving responsibilities that extend beyond their own family. When we bring in diversity of thought and experience, we are absolutely expanding our capacity for innovation and thought leadership within our companies.

Yu: When I became pregnant, I, like a lot of working parents, thought, ‘I’ll just fall right back into what it was before and it’ll work out. I’m going to figure it out. Other people have done it.’ It wasn’t until years later that I paused and realized that I had gone through a really significant identity shift when I became a working parent. At Josie, we help people pause and think more intentionally about that change in their lives. The best way to make inclusivity foundational is to equip people to have authentic one-on-one conversations that capture people in moments of vulnerability and distress in their lives. Giving them the tools to have those conversations is how you’re going to start actually embedding a culture of inclusivity in your workforce.

Kalita: How do you upskill managers to bring them into this conversation?

Yadegari: You need to have an internal playbook for handling certain policies and make sure that everyone within the organization understands it. For example, if you’re talking about hiring principles, ensure that any time there’s an open position, everybody within the organization understands that the interview process doesn’t begin until we have x amount of candidates in this pool. We want to make sure that we’re creating equal opportunities here.

Auger-Domínguez: All of our programming and trainings have centered on managers, because that is the most important relationship that you have at work. Every new program launch, we start with a manager one and then we have a full employee one. Because if managers are not first equipped and well-versed in how to deliver it, then we lose the employees.

Yu: Something really practical and easy to implement—and something we’ve heard from not only new parents that we’ve spoken to, but also their employers—is having a re-onboarding guide for parents that are returning from parental leave and making that transition. That can include more tactical things: For example, I was recently speaking to a mom friend of mine who works at a law firm, and she was saying that when she came back from leave, her IT system had been completely shut down and she couldn’t get into her computer. And then when she went to the office, all the pumping rooms were locked. So she wanted to pump, but she couldn’t actually get in touch with facilities.

So think about the checklists that you have when you onboard a new employee, and have something similar for someone who’s coming back. And more importantly, have a really thoughtful agenda that their manager and their team members can sit down with and have a really thoughtful first conversation about when they return. Talk about things like values and priorities and what’s important to them at that point in their life.

Kalita: What can individual contributors do?

Auger-Domínguez: No matter what your level in the organization is, you can always raise your hand and say, ‘Have we thought about this?’ One day I had a few employees reach out and say, ‘We’re a group of neurodiverse employees and this office setup just does not work for us. It’s too loud, it’s too open. You haven’t thought about us.’ I can talk about process all day long, but it’s these moments of introspection and reflection that we miss.

And when you buy something, when you pick a restaurant, you pick an organization—have we been purchasing from the same vendors over and over again? Are we thinking about vendors that don’t exist on this list? Should we pick a vendor from this community this month and next month from another community? Those are the decisions when we sometimes just have to pause and say, ‘Why do we keep on doing things the same way? Whose voices are missing?’

Yadegari: We’re coming back to offices, but we’re not the same people that we were before. And all of the old strategies, even DEI strategies, have to evolve in a way that we still don’t even know what they’re going to look like. But if we’re talking about how do we build a culture of inclusive leadership, we need to have a diverse group of leaders, and we need to set ourselves up and our employees up with the opportunity to create that. So we need more sponsorship programs, more mentorship programs, and we need to create valuable feedback loops so we know that our efforts are moving our goals forward.

Kalita: Is there a specific program approach, strategy, or tactic that owners of the talent agenda should prioritize in their work for 2023?

Auger-Domínguez: Onboarding holistically—not just onboarding new employees, but re-onboarding our current employees. We can’t even get people to come to the office. We have to remind them of why it’s important, and it just dawned on me a couple of weeks ago: We’ve been spending all this energy on onboarding new employees in a unique and special way, and we need to do the same thing for our current employees.

Yu: I’ll add: Ensure that you are equipping people to have those authentic conversations. If you can, embed in there a conversation about values and what’s important to that person in that time of their life.

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