Years ago, Iong before my time at The Predictive Index, I heard a co-worker say to a prospect via phone, “Yeah, that’s retarded.”
What’s more, he was the top performer on our sales team.
I cringed, then debated my next move. Like many, I grew up using the r-word as an occasional pejorative. I had since learned that doing so was extraordinarily hurtful to individuals with intellectual disabilities and their families. Using the word with a client was more than unprofessional; it was offensive.
The price of speaking up, as the team’s only woman, only parent, and a single mom to boot, seemed high. I needed this job, and I wanted to keep my head down.
If you work in a client-facing role, you may have encountered a similar moment of insensitivity. But addressing the issue can be tough, especially among colleagues. At a time when companies everywhere are rethinking inclusion, what exactly is the right approach?
When in doubt, start with your immediate environment. Here are four simple steps I’ve taken to promote inclusivity with customers and be an advocate for change:
1. Set the example.
When a peer says or does something exclusionary, what example does that set?
That’s what I asked myself when I heard the r-word for the second time. A recent college grad, sitting at the desk next to mine, had hung up the phone and used the word in frustration.
I was on the phone with a client. I prayed to the noise cancelling gods that the client didn’t hear.
It’s a cliché, but it’s true. If you want to encourage inclusive behavior, first make sure you and other leaders are championing the positive culture you seek. It does no good to problem solve in theory while ignoring incidents in application.
Say you’re engaging with clients who aren’t well-versed in gender and pronoun inclusion. If you don’t feel comfortable bringing up the subject directly, consider other avenues. Update your email signature to include your pronouns. Write a post on LinkedIn, sharing out helpful resources. Tag them in an insightful post with a cheerful, “Thought this might be relevant to your inclusivity goals!”
Don’t discount these gestures. What may seem like a small action can set a powerful precedent. Not only does it show where you are in your inclusion journey—it showcases leadership, and challenges others to follow suit.
2. Have the conversation.
I spoke to my junior team member privately. (I didn’t want to call my co-worker out on the spot, but I knew we had unintentionally set the wrong example and that we needed to do better.)
I calmly explained what he had said, acknowledged that we had both grown up saying it, then asked him to consider choosing different words next time. After all, how would he feel if he found out his prospect or a family member had a disability?
He was receptive. As for the rest of us, we did our first-ever virtual DEI training and although it was corny at times, it was effective in raising our collective awareness and understanding.
Take the story above. If you notice a co-worker being insensitive or rude, you may be tempted to call them out—perhaps with a retort of your own. Though you may mean well, this could create needless conflict. What’s more, it would signal to your team that the accepted behavior here is to make an example out of others, rather than set the example.
Calmly explain what you’ve observed about their behavior or language, and share why it runs counter to your company’s values. And, as much as the situation allows, come from a place of empathy and assume good intentions.
As Michelle Obama famously said, “When they go low, we go high.”
3. Hold ourselves accountable.
It’s one thing to set the example; it’s another to hold yourselves to it. Speaking up on behalf of your peers and clients is a great first step. But that needs to be followed up by continued action and leadership.
Once you’ve already spoken out about certain inclusion areas, put your advocacy to the test. If there’s language you’d like eliminated from the sales talk track, propose an alternative and stick to it. At PI, we’ve used Gong to track the language used on calls. Chip away at key problem areas each day, and strive for 0%!
Engagement tools like the PI Employee Experience Survey™ can be another helpful resource. By surveying employees at the organizational or team level, you can take a pulse on engagement, which is greatly impacted by diversity and inclusion. See how well engagement is going over time, and use this data to create actionable solutions.
Accountability isn’t always a given. You may be able to stick to your own inclusion standards, but that doesn’t mean your co-workers and clients will too. By setting the precedent, you signal to others that these standards are worth adhering to.
4. Be open to new ideas.
Even after you’ve created a means to hold yourself accountable, be mindful of ways you can improve.
For me, this has meant seeking continued learning. “So You Want to Talk About Race” is an accessible read that breaks down complex social issues into actionable next steps. Commit to reading it and understanding the issues. From there, share and discuss with your colleagues.
Another way is to listen. Self-improvement starts with understanding people’s experiences, and these experiences often come from those working alongside you in the office. Reach out to someone you don’t know as well as you’d like. Ask them if they’d feel comfortable swapping stories with you over a coffee. No need to overthink things—just come with an open mind.
The more comfortable you get with the issues facing minorities and other affected groups, the more you can expand your understanding. In doing so, you can help create a workplace where people don’t just feel included, but valued and supported.
Inclusion never stops.
These are just first steps. Inclusion requires commitment not just from yourself, but your peers, managers, and teams. Despite how daunting change might feel, remember that you don’t need to be an expert to move the needle. You just need to care.
Some employees may roll their eyes at my focus on dropping “you guys” from my vocabulary, but I’m not making this change for them. I’m making it for the millions of people who feel more included when I say “y’all” or “your team” instead.
So if you hear something that’s hurtful, take action. You can’t be certain you’ll change minds right away. But by setting your own goals, then holding yourself to them, you help move that needle. And others will likely follow.