Language at Work: Shifting the Dialogue from Intention to Impact

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Since this spring, when the killings of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd  sparked outrage and launched protests across the globe, the discussion about racial justice in America has seeped into every corner of our society. Suddenly, conversations about unconscious bias in the workplace didn’t feel strong enough to describe the anguish, frustration, and discrimination many Black Americans experience due to systems that perpetuate inequality. As employers, we have quickly been faced with a moment that is rapidly becoming a movement and outpacing language that only scratches the surface.

In the past several years, discussions around fairness in the workplace have focused quite a bit on “assuming best intent.” To successfully address inequities that are evidenced throughout the employee lifecycle and influenced by much of what occurs before adulthood, we have to be willing to shift the dialogue from intention to impact. Assuming the best intentions should not be considered a one-way street that dead-ends when a person is told about the negative impacts they have caused. For us to truly make progress in eradicating negative bias and inequities, we must be willing to use language that matches our intended impact.

For instance, discussions around women in the workplace are top of mind given the adverse and unequal impacts Covid-19 has had on women’s careers. Even within this discussion, we continue to perpetuate language that ensures women of color will continue to struggle more than their white counterparts. We say things like, “for women the % leaving the workforce is x, and for women of color, the numbers are even more harrowing.” When we do that we center the belief that white women are the default while everyone else is the variant. A similar problem arises when we reference goals to increase the hiring of “diverse” candidates without defining the dimension(s) of diversity we are looking for. This allows discrepancies for visible and invisible dimensions of diversity to be overlooked and to continue to do more harm than good by mistakenly equating “diverse” solely with gender or race/ethnicity. Although these are common phrases you can and do still hear today, you will also hear of the hope-filled wishes many people have for this to be the moment that breaks new ground in dismantling systemic discrimination.

I have a common saying, “while hope is critical, it is not a plan.” We have all hoped that things would change for the better. They haven’t. Which is not for lack of trying by many. Seeing the launch and investment in the DEI space is certainly a great start, but things can’t change for the better without a focus on impact. What we need is a change from the comfortable language and processes that haven’t resulted in progress. It’s time we plan for a change that forces a certain amount of discomfort, because it is that discomfort that will catalyze forward moving, meaningful progress. I have hope that we can get there and plan to achieve that goal by pushing the boundaries of comfortable language to a more honest discussion of what needs to change and how.

KeyAnna Schmiedl, Global Head, Culture & Inclusion at Wayfair, will be a panelist in our upcoming Embedding DEI workshop, “Getting Uncomfortable