Bad news, you might be harming diversity & inclusion in your team

Debbie Widjaja
5 min readMay 1, 2022

Many companies now have diversity goals they need to achieve. Diversity can be easily measured with numbers — how many women/Black/Asian/LatinX/LGBTQ+ do we have in our candidate pipeline/team/leadership team? It’s objective, straightforward, and it’s easy to pat yourself in the back when you’ve finally hired that two female Software Engineers and one Asian UX Researcher to the team.

Inclusion is a bit more tricky. Diversity is about who is in the room. Inclusion is about who speaks in the room, who feels belong in the room, who feels listened to in the room.

There are things you might be doing, or not doing, that can make the minorities in your team feel less welcome. Remember that racism is not always an active action. It’s a spectrum that could go from actively discriminating against people of colour to dismissing their opinions. In the workplace, the latter behaviour is more prevalent.

Unconscious action 1: Not bothering to appreciate their names

I’ve seen this happened far too often:

  • Misspelling their names in written comms (e.g. Taj to Tej or Raj)
  • ‘Correcting’ their names to make it more Western (e.g. Nikhil to Nick)
  • Mispronouncing their names without bothering to ask for the correct pronunciation (remember the ‘Ka-MAL-a, Ka-mala, whatever!’ incident?)

I used to work for a director who remembered the names of 60 people in his department. When I asked why he bothered to make the effort to do that, he quoted Dale Carnegie: “A person’s name is to that person, the sweetest and most important sound in any language.”

PS: If you don’t know how to say someone’s name, just ask.

Unconscious action 2: Assuming that they arrive here, at the same spot as you, via the same path

This is the equivalent of saying “I don’t see colour / I’m colour-blind.” The reason this well-intended attitude can be harmful is that you discount the adversity they have to go through.

All the stats are stacked against them, and it’s important to appreciate their journey and how far they’ve come. This is especially important when you’re assessing somebody in an interview. If you see two people with similar achievements, make sure you also recognise where their start lines were.

One anecdotal example. In my last company, my VP was a director at a fintech company. She’d tell us stories about the company parties at the CEO’s boat or villa. She came from a privileged background — top schools and universities. In the same company, I had a more junior colleague that always impressed me with her initiatives and work attitude. Later, I found out that my colleague’s mother also worked for the CEO of that fintech company. She wasn’t partying in the boat though — she was their nanny.

To me, my junior colleague deserves more admiration and respect than the VP. She’s the first in her family that is doing a white-collar job. Imagine the struggle she had to go through to get where she is now.

Showing curiosity about their experience can be a good way to start the conversation. I’m originally from Indonesia and I moved to the UK when I was 26, a move that’s only possible because I got a scholarship from the UK government. I always appreciate questions about life in Indonesia, or about my story of applying for scholarships. (Spoiler alert: I failed 4 times.)

Unconscious action 3: Creating a boys’ club (or any equivalent)

When was the last time you walked into a room and realised that you’re the only man/woman/Asian/White/Black/gay/transgender/etc there?

If you can’t remember, tread carefully. Most likely, you belong as the most privileged group in that organisation. Which means that the conversations and the activities your team does are revolved around your natural interests: sports, drinking, yoga, whatever that is.

If you want to retain a diverse talent, you have to be mindful about not excluding them in these activities or conversations. An easy way to check if you have this problem is by looking around the people in the team — is there somebody who always skips the after-office ‘fun’? Is there somebody who prefers to stay silent in the small talks before the meeting starts?

Sending champagne as a work anniversary gift assumes that everyone drinks alcohol

Unconscious action 4: Paying less attention when somebody with an accent speaks their opinion

Again, I’ve seen this far too often. Somebody with perfect English presented and received an applause. Then another person started speaking — with an accent.

People started averting their gaze and checking their emails. Even worse, the room became slightly noisier as people started to chat among each other, without thinking how disrespectful it is for the presenter.

If you ever tried to present something in your second language, you could easily empathise with how unnerving it could be. Respect their effort and give encouragement.

Unconscious action 5: Refusing to acknowledge your privilege

It’s 2022 and I hope I don’t have to point out anymore that having privilege doesn’t mean that you haven’t worked hard to get here. It’s not about what you went through, it’s about what you didn’t have to go through.

If you’re already quite senior in your organisation, you might be asked to share your career story in events. Be mindful when you share stories and tips such as:

  • Don’t follow the money, follow the learning opportunities
  • I took a career break to follow my passion to be a beer maker
  • I accidentally got this job without even trying

Some people have to support their family since they’re young. Most people can’t afford taking a break because they have loans and bills to pay. And most people don’t go to fancy schools that allow you to have connections or access to cool jobs and companies.

It’s your life story and you can tell it. But be very mindful in acknowledging that you could go through that path because of your privilege.

The list above isn’t exhaustive, but I hope it can shed some light on unconscious actions that you might be doing. Do you have any other tips to build a more inclusive work place? Let me know!