Talking about DEI

Dana James-Edwards shows the importance integrity when having sensitive conversations

Workplaces often depend on outcomes from teams made up of very different personalities and backgrounds. The benefits of bringing a diverse group together can be lost when the people in those groups can’t work together in complementary ways, and when there’s no basis of empathy and understanding. 

At the same time, the workplace conversations needed for openness and building trust between team members aren’t getting any easier. There’s more awareness of the importance of the diversity and inclusion agenda, but also more sensitivity: in other words, more fault lines, more occasions when there can be tensions and divisions. 

It’s critical that everyone feels able to bring as much of themselves as they choose to work, and is able to have a voice that is respected and heard – but do organisations have the skills to deal with the difficult conversations sometimes involved in challenging conventional approaches to inclusion, inequities and discrimination?

Having more policies around diversity and discrimination doesn’t mean it’s easier for employees to talk about issues affecting equity, inclusion and belonging

Having more policies around diversity and discrimination doesn’t mean it’s easier for employees to talk about issues affecting equity, inclusion and belonging. Conversations centred on inclusion can be emotive and difficult to navigate. And, when those conversations remain stuck in conflict, opportunities to make progress in terms of changes in practices and culture, and for re-engagement of employees are lost.

The King’s Fund, a charity shaping health care policy and practice, had five Employee Network Groups (ENGs) that emerged organically: for Black employees, people with disability and long-term health conditions, LGBTQ+ employees, women, and working parents. They have been a means of bringing together employees who might usually feel they are part of a minority group at work or who face common challenges that impact their daily working lives. They act as a safe place for staff to talk, a way they can feel represented, and are starting to take an active role in encouraging change. From the organisation’s perspective, the groups are a way of supporting a stronger sense of affinity with the workplace and belonging. 

The ENG initiative has already led to cultural change, to LGBTQ+ employees feeling more able to be out and proud; to focused campaigns such as the ‘5 things you don’t know about what it’s like to be a working parent’, which has encouraged managers to be more receptive to requests for flexible work arrangements. 

Each group is chaired by at least one member of staff who volunteers to take on the role in addition to their day job. The majority are from more junior levels of the organisation, with less experience of chairing meetings and managing upwards. And in practice, being a chair also means taking on board a range of strong views from people who feel like they’re fighting to be heard. There can be a mix of competing opinions, some grievances, and some conversations have the potential to become fractious. Then, those chairs are expected to report back on those views to their network sponsor, a member of the senior management team (SMT), making a case for particular changes or activities in response. It’s a role that can be intimidating and nerve-wracking. Passion for a have a cause and the determination to accurately represent people’s concerns were affecting the way messages were communicated upwards.

It was decided that ENG chairs needed support to avoid tensions in the way diversity issues were presented and discussed both within their networks and with the SMT. With support, conversations would be less awkward, there would be more understanding – and greater potential for constructive action as a result.

A training programme focused on conversational integrity (CI), with ways of developing the core skills needed for better conversations, particularly when it comes to dealing with difficult and sensitive situations: listening, self-awareness, empathy and curiosity. CI is intended to make for smooth and positive interaction among managers and co-workers, a platform for good performance at work, for avoiding conflict. But not so there’s a monoculture of people with all the same attitudes and behaviours. People who challenge conventions, who might clash with others, are an important and healthy part of a workplace as a source of new insights and change. Having CI in the organisation just means those kinds of difficult conversations take place in a constructive, grown-up way, and always in the context of a mutual empathy.

The chairs benefited in particular from learning how best to frame their approach, thinking more in terms of ‘how’ things are said rather than just the ‘what’. They have become tuned into the importance of ‘situational awareness’ and the need to be alert to the needs of their listeners and the value of shaping their message. Simply being together, seeing how they were all facing similar challenges and identifying themselves as a group rather than individual islands, has also been useful for them.

Since the programme, the ENGs have run with a smooth flow of listening, representation and understanding. There has been progress on appreciating the needs and aims of decision-makers in the King’s Fund, closer team-working on diversity issues and a more collective and strategic approach in terms of prioritising issues and requests made to the SMT.

Dana James-Edwards, head of diversity and inclusion, The King’s Fund


Dana James-Edwards

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