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DEI as a Young Professional

The world has changed significantly. Not just in the last two centuries or the last two decades but even in the last two years. One of the hot topics of discussion has been diversity, equity and inclusion. Sometimes referred to as DEI. Or you might have seen D&I or EDI, or other acronyms. 

You’ll be able to find a lot of material online on “what is DEI,” why it is important, plus how organizations and leaders can create a more diverse, equitable and inclusive workplace. Though a young professional recently pointed out to me that there isn’t as much out there related to what a young professional, recent grad or student intern could do.

“Diversity is being invited to the party. Inclusion is being asked to dance” -Verna Myers

When I ask a young professional, recent grad or student intern about DEI, they often don’t have much of a reaction. On occasion, there are a few that have been on the receiving end of some sort of discrimination. Perhaps it’s anecdotally a good sign of the times that youth are not as afflicted. 

Many entry-level roles at companies abound with folks from different genders, racism ethnicities, physical & mental capabilities, etc. It seems like youth are anecdotally being invited to the party and being asked to dance. DEI seems to be a concern for senior leadership. Though, as these young folks advance in their career, DEI will likely be more of a concern. Conversations are starting on what can be done to get ahead of the challenge.  

Speaking to some DEI-minded folks, The following were collectively brainstormed (though not exhaustive by any means):

  1. Awareness
  2. Understanding
  3. Practice
  4. Improvement

Awareness 

“Awareness is the greatest agent for change” -Eckhart Tolle

Have you ever thought of the people you work with? How are they similar to you, and how are they different from you? Have you thought about your workplace from a DEI lens?

A youth in a group I was chatting with was wondering if I could even ask these types of questions. I said, “are we now so sensitive that we can’t even talk about it?”

Let’s bring the challenge into the light so they can be acknowledged and addressed. That doesn’t make the process easy. When our unconscious biases are acknowledged, the process can hurt. 

I recall a recent interaction where someone felt I was discriminating against them. The issue escalated. When I finally had a chance to acknowledge the alleged hurtful remark, I realized that “having no intention to hurt them” wasn’t necessarily good enough. The issue was eventually resolved with separate previously unknown trauma at play, and it led me on a journey to an awareness that I am very much thankful for.

Reading this article may very well be your first step to awareness. The next step is to learn more to gain some understanding.

How? Get involved in your company’s DEI groups. 

Doesn’t exist? Start one. 

Perhaps find a community organization or a trusted DEI ally to help. 

As a young professional, recent grad or student intern, you can make a difference.

You don’t have to wait to be in senior leadership. Though building a relationship with an executive sponsor could be a good step to make your DEI initiatives sustainable.

Understanding

With some newfound awareness, the next step is to gain some understanding. Perhaps connecting with a DEI professional, talking to a learned friend, researching a bit of history, or learning additional points of awareness to be noted.

While the process can be quite awkward and nerve-wracking, approaching understanding from a perspective of curiosity can be very helpful.

Asking questions is a great way of gaining understanding.

A few good questions to ask:

  • What is your definition of diversity? Equity? Inclusion? If we’re gonna be aware and understand it, we might as well get on the same page regarding what it means to us as an organization. DEI is not just gender or race and can include physical/mental abilities, religions, cultures and age. While you can start with a dictionary definition, each organization will often have to pick their own interpretations and prioritizations. 
  • Why is DEI important to us? Benefits are plentiful, and choose the ones that resonate with your organization. Whether it’s improved innovation, enhanced employee engagement, reaching broader markets, or others, align them with your organization’s values. 
  • How do we know that we’ve been successful with our DEI initiatives? Initiatives could start with a few awareness emails, continue with various workshops and learning and hopefully carry on with a thriving community. The start and end state will be up to you. 

There are plenty more questions to ask, though you can start by progressing your close colleagues to awareness and then understanding. Extend to broader departments and groups based on which are receptive and open. Then see what other parts of the company would be willing to take part. You might need senior leadership buy-in to help that happen. Or may choose to make it a grassroots effort. Think progress vs perfection. 

Again, a young professional, recent grad or student intern can make a difference. You don’t have to be an expert. You just need to be willing to put in the effort to move the initiatives forward. Though you will eventually need some senior leadership support in order to really help DEI initiatives thrive in your organization. 

At the end of the day, prioritizing and making the time is an important step to allow understanding to happen.

How? I allocate a few hours of your month, an hour of your week, or even a few minutes daily to DEI initiatives. Promote awareness. Have conversations. Improve your understanding. That time consistently over time can easily turn awareness into understanding. 

Practice 

“Consistent action creates consistent results” – Christine Kane

DEI it’s not a “one-and-done activity.” It’s something that needs to be practised consistently and often in order to be effective.

Yes, you may have had a workshop and felt great about your new DEI knowledge. You might have completed some DEI training and implemented the initiative so that it was successful. But what about next month? Or next year? Or the year after next?

How often will it be up to you and your organization? Those earlier on the path to awareness, understanding and developing it into regular practice will need more time. Eventually, if you can embed DEI into the culture of your organization, then last time is likely because the time you do spend will be habitual. 

That may sound daunting for a young professional, recent grad or student intern, though hopefully, you’ve already realized that you can make a difference. 

How? Find your “tribe” of DEI allies within your organization or community who can help the understanding turn into a regular practice.

Improvement 

If you’re at this stage on your DEI journey, then your high-achieving self will likely want to make things even better.

Perhaps you can share your successes with other departments or even other organizations and join the broader DEI community. Perhaps you can bring in folks from other organizations and learn from them. Maybe even secure executive support for a DEI audit to see how effective your initiatives have really been.

And what you’ll eventually realize is that you ARE making a difference. That is, once you realize that even as a young professional, recent grad or student intern, you can make a difference!

An Amplification of HR Legal Trends from the Last Decade

In our ever-changing workforce, it’s more important than ever for employers to stay on top of HR trends and what legal implications they may have on their organization, workplace culture and overall brand. We had the chance to speak with Greg McGinnis, Partner at Matthews Dinsdale & Clark LLP, about upcoming trends in employment law. What we discovered was that the trends from the latter half of the last decade are amplifying. Read on to see how. 

Although there have been many societal shifts within the last few years, Greg comments that there really aren’t any new or radical changes in employment law, but rather previous trends are continuing. He does mention, however, that there’s a common theme or phenomenon happening as a result of previous trends, like the #MeToo movement, legalization of Cannabis and diversity in the workforce, which is fostering an increased demand for flexibility and zero tolerance for toxic workplaces. 

Flexibility and Accommodation

“The main trend, if I can call it that, is that people are looking for flexibility in their work. They’re looking for flexibility in terms of hours of work, days of work, time off when they need it. The big trend is that employees want their work to fit in with their lives, and so employers are increasingly having to accommodate that kind of flexibility. That comes in all kinds of different forms. One form would be people who have young children, who want the time for child care or to attend events in their kids’ lives. Then you also have, especially in Canada, a large population of people who come from other places originally and they travel, so they want to have longer periods of time off to visit family or just travel. There’s an increasing trend towards flexibility at work, where it could be accommodated.” 

“The idea that work is Monday to Friday, 9 to 5 and you better just show up – that concept has slowly been eroding for a long time and it’s continuing to erode. There are of course jobs where you need to be [at work] for certain time periods, but even then, people will want extended time off. We see this in every domain, from factory workers to office workers. People are demanding that their personal life and needs are reflected at work.” 

Zero Tolerance for Toxic Workplaces

As a result of the same societal factors that gave rise to the #MeToo movement, Greg has found that the number of complaints being made that require the employer to carry out investigations has significantly increased. “I would say the #MeToo movement is a reflection of the same underlying phenomenon that people aren’t prepared to be treated poorly or suffer in silence. There’s next to no tolerance for toxic workplace behaviour. It is increasingly important for employers to ensure their workplace provides a positive, constructive atmosphere for people to work in and if they don’t do it, they will be facing a requirement to invest in workplace investigations…There’s a whole raft of time-consuming expensive consequences that can result from not dealing with these problems.” 

Diversity 

Diversity is an important value for many organizations. In Greg’s experience, diversity hiring has to be managed effectively by most employers to ensure all job seekers are given an equal opportunity to join a positive workplace, but that’s not always easy to achieve and maintain once your workforce becomes diverse. “Diversity has an impact on workplace culture because when you have new people or experiences, people come to work with different cultural expectations or behaviours that may require an adjustment on the part of the employer.”

Once you recruit a diverse workforce, you need to ensure your policies are, and the workplace is, welcoming, accommodating and, again, flexible. “You have a diverse workforce, you need a diverse workforce, then you need to find ways to reconcile new and different expectations where you need to get the work done. The challenge of diversity is that you don’t really know what’s next, you have to adapt to the people you are employing the best you can, and they need to adapt to you too.” 

Cannabis: Biggest Issue That’s a Non-issue

Now that Cannabis has been legal in Canada for over a year, there have been minimal impacts on employment law, according to Greg. “Cannabis is the big nothing. It may have a long term impact, but the short term impact has been next to zero.”

“It’s not that all of a sudden people are bringing their drugs to work or consuming drugs in a different way. Most employers in anticipation of the legalization of cannabis took another look at their fitness for duty policies, and perhaps even their testing policies and gave some thought on how to approach that. Then legalization occurred and people braced themselves for the onslaught of stoners as if all of a sudden we were all going to turn into Cheech and Chong and it just didn’t happen!”

“Outside of safety-sensitive positions where someone could be seriously injured or killed or your actions could result in someone being seriously injured, or death or property damage, the issue of cannabis has not made any difference. And I think the reason for that is – cannabis is just one intoxicant. There’s a wide array of drugs out there, legal and illegal, and the legalization of cannabis has had a marginal impact on the way cannabis impairment, specifically, has been addressed when it’s been detected.”

Gig Economy

There were concerns about the ‘gig’ economy and the impact on the career prospects for millennial and Gen Z workers, but in regards to employment law, it’s really only made employers consider instituting more flexible work environments. 

“My perspective on the gig economy is that it’s provided opportunities for people to work in small amounts on their schedule that competes with the regular employment pool. So people who want more flexibility can get it by becoming a gig worker. I think the gig economy has expanded opportunities for people. [Employers] have to recognize that their employees can go and do consulting or gig work as an alternative to regular employment. So it forces more flexibility onto employers as well.” 

 

With the evolution and expansion of trends from the last few years, Greg notes that in the legal sphere, changes in the law are harder to predict. “The world of work is driven more by cultural change than by legal change. We’re not seeing a lot of radical legal changes now or anticipated in the future. The society is changing, so we have to respond to that.” It’s important that employers are staying on the cutting edge of emerging and continuing societal and workplace trends, especially when considering incoming talent will come into the workforce with new and sometimes challenging expectations for employers to meet. 


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