How one chief diversity officer is leading in the workplace and beyond

February 26, 2021, 9:10 PM UTC
Carin Taylor of Workday
Courtesy of Workday

Pain. Frustration. Anger. Worry. Fear. And sometimes hope. Like so many people around the world, I’ve had to figure out how to cope with the myriad feelings that accompanied this past year—from the protests last summer to the ongoing pandemic to, more recently, the shocking events at the U.S. Capitol. I’ve wrestled with my emotions about this as a member of the Black community, as a woman with a large multicultural and multigenerational family, and as a chief diversity officer (CDO) at Workday.

I never could have imagined the healing that would need to take place to begin recovering from the turmoil that came with the year 2020. I found myself needing to play a part in that healing process, not just for myself, but for so many others: family, friends, colleagues, peers, and even strangers.

In the midst of the social unrest last summer, I pulled into a parking lot at my local grocery store. An elderly white man waited for me to get out of my car, and he approached me with tears in his eyes. He started with, “I’m so ashamed for what my people have done.” That same day, I was experiencing my own frustrations with race in our country. However, like so many others who do this work, I put aside my own feelings, and I had a heart-to-heart with this man about the state of the world, our fears, frustrations, and hope for a better future—for all of us. We both left the conversation with tears in our eyes, vowing to be a part of the change that needed to happen.

The events of last year were, for me, an acknowledgement of issues that have been swept under the rug for far too long, and a reminder of how much work we still have to do to address racism and inequities in this country. I believe the conversation I had in the grocery store parking lot is a microcosm of something larger: that our history of dismissing issues of race has had lasting impacts on many of us regardless of our individual identities. And when everyone feels accountable and plays their part, even if it’s simply engaging in conversation, change is possible.

As the young poet laureate Amanda Gorman said in a recent interview: “We need to realize that hope isn’t something that we ask of others, it’s something that we have to demand from ourselves.” When I think about what needs to come next, I know this acknowledgement, this ongoing dialogue, and our willingness to put in the hard work—at work, at home, and even in conversations with strangers—are the only ways we can sustain our hope and create lasting change.

Deeper conversations and louder voices in the workplace

More meaningful conversations, in spaces where we once avoided them, have been a noticeable result of the current times we’re all living through. We’re discussing topics such as systemic racism and being comfortable with the uncomfortable in company meetings, open forums, and email communications in a deeper way than ever before. I’ve seen Workday employees become more vulnerable and open in the workplace, and their voices have increased urgency when it comes to helping leaders understand the issues employees care about most. At a companywide town hall last June, which focused on belonging and diversity (B&D), a coworker in Atlanta admitted he was “not okay.” He told us about tough conversations he’d recently had with his 14-year-old daughter following events with Ahmaud Arbery, Christian Cooper, and George Floyd. He said he struggled to provide the right guidance for her while he was also processing what he’d witnessed—a perspective many of his colleagues didn’t know or understand.

I welcome these louder voices, and often model this behavior by being vulnerable, too. Hate crimes in 2019 were at their highest level in a decade, according to a recent report, and while I haven’t faced this in my own San Francisco Bay Area community, I’ve turned down invitations in my personal life to go on cross-country road trips due to fear of being harmed simply because of the color of my skin. I’ve spoken with my coworkers about how I live in a country where, in some places, I would not feel welcome or safe exploring. That’s a sobering reality if you’re a Black person in America. 

As someone who regularly plays the role of coach on B&D issues, I encourage my fellow leaders to engage in these hard conversations, regardless of their level of discomfort. We’re all peeling back the layers and trying to understand how our identities and experiences impact us and our colleagues. That’s a big shift for many, but a necessary shift for us to make systemic change.

Whether I’m talking to family, coworkers, or strangers, I always try to approach these discussions from a place of curiosity and empathy, and I advise others to do the same. People want to be heard, understood, and appreciated for their perspectives, especially when they aren’t a part of the majority. In the workplace, having more qualitative and quantitative information about the true employee experience is the best way for us to figure out what they need most from us.

Making investments that matter

The effects of this past year have not been the same for everyone. The pandemic has disproportionately led to job losses among women, and particularly women of color. Parents, especially single parents, have struggled to care for and educate their children. Increased racial tension has traumatized the Black community.

For employees, these issues impact productivity, experience, and engagement. For organizations, and for our broader society, they’ve shined a light on the opportunity we have to make investments and commit to progress over the long term. It’s about asking questions like: How are we going to revamp recruiting processes to increase our pipeline of talented underrepresented minorities? How are we going to use the power of the corporate purse to create financial strength and workforce empowerment in our communities? How will we turn those deeper conversations we’re having into actionable steps that create lasting change?

One solution is to expand our reach and get more people involved. For example, at Workday, we created a dedicated team of more than 20 additional people who are focused, full-time for a year, on accelerating our company commitments around B&D. We also help all employees understand how each of us are accountable for our B&D efforts. We empower team leaders and frontline managers, who are much closer to their employees and their experiences, to play an active role. Managers are more likely to understand an employee’s sense of belonging, and they can encourage the type of grass-roots efforts and participation that can add up to something big.

Building momentum that lasts

We recently observed Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday, and he said it eloquently: “If you can’t fly then run, if you can’t run then walk, if you can’t walk then crawl, but whatever you do you have to keep moving forward.”  

When other leaders ask me how, first I emphasize the importance of leading with compassion and empathy. And I offer a few key suggestions:

Transparency, including data transparency, is critical. Your workforce wants to understand the whole picture, and your leadership wants actionable, concrete data to inform how they should drive things differently. As the saying goes, “If you can’t measure it, you can’t improve it.”

This work requires emotional capital. It’s hard work, and it requires a shift in mindset. This is not about checking a box or making sure your columns line up in a spreadsheet. This is an ongoing effort to help people see things in a new way and change behaviors.

The sum is bigger than its parts. We have to improve the entire system, not just one part of it. In the B&D world, we’re not competitors. We’re all trying to solve for the same issues and find creative solutions that make a stronger impact. 

In addition to keeping King’s words alive, we need to practice what he preached. I try to do my part by fighting for the equality of all people, always. People often ask me how I can respect the opinions of those who feel very differently than I do. My response is that we need to go beyond the opinions and reach a place of understanding. We may never agree in some cases, but having that conversation is essential—even in a grocery store parking lot.

Carin Taylor is chief diversity officer at Workday and serves on the board of Watermark, a nonprofit organization whose mission is to increase the number of women in leadership positions.

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