55% of People are Too Scared to Talk About Diversity and Inclusion in the Workplace for Fear of Saying the Wrong Thing

Published on: Fri 7 May 2021 by Claudia Cooney

Of the 1,090 people who responded to our most recent poll, less than half said they are comfortable to talk openly about diversity and inclusion at work and more than five in ten are scared to say the wrong thing.

Talking at work

Here’s what our Lead Director, Claudia Cooney has to say:

What is your initial reaction?

“It shows we are instilling the message that discriminatory behaviour is not ok and there will be consequences. But, we must be mindful of how we are driving change. To change stereotypes and broaden perspectives, open conversations are imperative. Fear of saying the wrong thing is without doubt a barrier we must dissolve.”

Why are people scared?

Firstly, people often genuinely don’t want to offend others – and in the absence of knowledge and confidence they opt to steer clear of uncomfortable subjects entirely.

Secondly, there has been a stream of people in the public eye over recent years who have been called out for doing or saying the wrong thing – calling out inappropriate behaviour or language is no doubt the right thing to do – but at best people have been gravely embarrassed and at worst, have lost their jobs, been trolled and received death threats. There is a perception that if you make a genuine mistake, it’s game over.”

Why is it important to remove fear of talking about diversity and inclusion?

“To change perceptions and dissolve stereotypes we must nurture a culture of curiosity. If we stay in our own bubbles it is virtually impossible to see the world from different perspectives and understand the how we can play a part in helping everyone feel like they belong. As we know, when people feel like they belong and have a greater sense of psychological safety, great things happen to engagement, productivity, creativity and profitability.”

What can organisations do to make people feel comfortable?

  1. As an organisation distinguish between those people who have made a genuine mistake and those who have intended to offend or have received and ignored feedback. Of course, the fact there is no intent does not excuse or protect an individual from further action, but in some situations, there will be an opportunity to deal with it informally.
  2. Teach your people how to both speak out informally and listen to and accept feedback without being defensive. These aren’t skills that everyone will have naturally but they can be learned. Creating a culture of open communication will be transformational in so many respects.
  3. Don’t limit the diversity and inclusion conversation to annual training events. Keep it going informally at every possible opportunity. Make talking and learning about this stuff part of the every day.

What can individuals do?

  1. Start from the position that people are not offensive on purpose. See their mistakes as an opportunity to start a dialogue from which you can both learn about each other.
  2. Try not to embarrass or close people down by just saying “You can’t say that” (or just going straight to your manager.) Instead, try: “When I heard you say that it made me think that you do not have equal respect for women. Was it your intention to come across that way?”
  3. Lead by example by talking about your experiences and perspectives. Be curious and non-judgemental to others. Get involved in steering groups or champion schemes. And, if you don’t know the answer to something, just ask.

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