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Creating inclusive workplaces is crucial for any organization that wants to get the most out of its talent. This means nurturing an environment where everyone feels like they belong, has equal opportunities, is empowered to do their best work, and feels comfortable making requests and contributing ideas. 

Lily Zheng

Regarded as one of the foremost specialists within the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) vertical, Lily has defined a crystal clear boundary between practice and preach. A best-selling author and a change practitioner, Lily penetrates the corporate shield and deconstructs the entrenched architecture of inequity. This data-integrated approach, widely recognized as their IP, is both adaptive and responsive to each corporate ecosystem.

Hi Lily, welcome to the series! Before we dive in, we’d love to get to know you a bit better. How did you get to where you are today?

I’m one of the few diversity, equity, and inclusion practitioners I know who started their career doing DEI work, rather than entering this field from another. 

I started in higher education, working with staff and leaders on how they might more effectively support students and other staff members from marginalized communities, and shortly afterwards started my own consulting business, which I still lead today.

It was intimidating to start my own business so early on in my career, but I was motivated by my desire to bring a new approach to DEI work centered on data-driven, measurable outcomes because much of the work when I entered the field was still focused on positive intentions and abstract commitments.

Along the way, the services I provide have evolved as I’ve honed my methodology and approach, and I’m grateful to be where I am now as a practitioner who folks look to for guidance and help to turn good intentions into real progress.

It has been said that our mistakes can be our greatest teachers. Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting and what lesson you learned from it?

This one’s embarrassing. Despite living in Silicon Valley, I knew very little about tech companies, tech culture, and tech lingo when I first started doing DEI work. 

This meant that the very first time I heard the phrase “stand-up,” (referring to the common practice of daily meetings for employees to discuss what they’re working on) was in a 1:1 interview with an employee to get insights into their experiences. 

While making small talk to open the conversation, I asked what the employee had been up to that day and they mentioned, “I just came back from our usual stand-up.” Unaware that the term could refer to anything else, I scribbled down a note and commented, “I had no idea that this organization made stand-up comedy a part of their culture!” 

My interviewee looked at me for several awkward seconds before they had to eventually explain what a daily stand-up was, and I hastily crossed out my note while very red in the face.

The lesson I learned: mistakes are human, and my interviewees seeing me as imperfect can help them feel more comfortable being vulnerable with me as well. Not only was my misunderstanding a non-issue for the interview, but it also helped my interviewee open up to me and see me as just another person doing their best to learn about them, rather than a stone-faced consultant just there to collect information. 

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful for who helped get you to where you are?

One of my very first clients was a leader of an organization who brought me in to facilitate some important staff development training.

This person understood the value of my work, and to date has been the only person who, after I shared with her my fee for the session, refused to pay unless I charged more for my services. 

She helped me understand that my work was worth the value that it created for my clients—much more than the flawed rationale I was using of charging my (very low, at the time) hourly rate x the length of the engagement. 

This leader’s soft but unyielding insistence that I charge what I was worth helped me gain the confidence I needed to continue finding success as an entrepreneur. 

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life? 

"Don’t be a hero; be part of a heroic community."

Even if the work you do is the most important thing in your life, seeing yourself as alone in your journey is an easy way to burn yourself out. 

Take the time to invest in a support network and professional community that you feel proud to work alongside, and you’ll not only feel more empowered to do the work you do but also feel like you have more permission to rest and take breaks as needed.

Thinking back on your own career, what would you tell your younger self?

 You’re doing the work that needs to be done. Keep it up—but don’t forget to make friends and colleagues along the way, and don’t forget to make space for your own healing. You’ve got the hustle down, but it doesn’t need to define you. You are more than your work! 

What systems do you have to ensure your workplace is as inclusive as possible?

As a consultant, my own workplace is pretty lean! Just me and a few contractors. Even then, I try to ensure that the folks on my team are supported with what they need to succeed and feel sustained by the work. 

Some practices that I use to achieve that include: 

  • Inviting input into all major decisions that might affect my team members’ work 
  • Proactively checking in once every month or so on my team members’ workflow, process, and needs to see if there are any improvements I might make 
  • Periodic review of my organization’s operating processes and practices with team input, to see if there are any updates we should make to work more inclusively and respectfully. 

Regularly measuring outcomes allows us to gauge the genuine success of our initiatives to improve them, whereas measuring vanity metrics may lead us into a false sense of security—believing that we’re making real progress when, in reality, nothing’s changed.  

Based on your experience and success, what are your top five tips for creating more inclusive workplaces?

1. Share power with those who are most excluded by the status quo, and work in tandem with them to build a better organization. I worked with a client that learned many of their employees who were women, Black, Latine, Asian, Indigenous, disabled, Jewish, Muslim, and/or LGBTQ+ felt left out of decision-making. They put together an advisory board of volunteers from these communities and created a standard decision-making process that would involve this group as a key source of feedback and guidance for major firmwide decisions affecting employees. 

2. Bring the practice of inclusion work down to the level of everyday operations to build a sense of shared responsibility. Rather than only tasking one head of DEI, or a few volunteer employee groups, with the responsibility of creating a more inclusive workplace, translate that goal to role-specific responsibilities that feel more actionable and relevant to every employee. Every manager should have specific responsibilities to make their team members feel supported, respected, and valued. Product designers should have specific responsibilities to design inclusive and accessible products. Communications professionals should have specific responsibilities to communicate on behalf of the organization in a manner broadly inclusive of all.  

3. Treat inclusion-related organizational change efforts with the same gravitas and process as any other business-related improvement. I worked with a leadership team that worked with their internal DEI professionals to translate DEI-related work into the same process that they used for their operational improvements, which allowed for DEI work to be resourced, budgeted for, project planned, and made accountable alongside their other operations work. 

4. Measure outcomes. When trying to improve inclusion, take care to measure what actually matters: the outcomes of feeling included, rather than the intentions to include others. I’ve seen organizations measure “attendance at events” and “leaders’ excitement” as measures to mark the success of their inclusion efforts, but not measure employees’ perception of respect, employees’ feelings of belonging, employees’ confidence asking for help, and other important outcome metrics. Regularly measuring outcomes allows us to gauge the genuine success of our initiatives to improve them, whereas measuring vanity metrics may lead us into a false sense of security—believing that we’re making real progress when, in reality, nothing’s changed.  

5. Take every effort to integrate inclusion efforts within the organization’s core mission, purpose, values, and operations. I’ve worked with many organizations to not only write DEI-related mission statements, but then to operationalize them into every department’s practices and operations, integrate them into core processes like leadership training, promotion, and conflict resolution, and ensure that they’re reflected in how the organization does business and engages with customers and clients. This requires that leaders, in particular, are able to drive the change and articulate the interconnectedness of inclusion (and DEI efforts overall) and their core purpose.  

Businesses must commit to grounding every DEI-related effort with data, including both qualitative and quantitative, looking into important outcomes like well-being, upward mobility, enablement, efficacy, belonging, engagement, and many others.

What are some common mistakes you see businesses make while trying to become more inclusive?

Most mistakes organizations make relate to their inability or unwillingness to actually measure and commit to changing outcomes. Common ones include:

1. Delegating inclusion work to unpaid volunteers, rather than treating it as a valuable pillar of the organization’s brand and operations—this leads to burnout, inconsistency, and feelings of resentment due to the lack of formal support and resources.

2. Using exclusively short-term and shallow interventions like one-and-done training, celebrations, or speaker events in an attempt to achieve long-term impact or deep organizational change.  

3. Looking for “general DEI best practices” to apply divorced from context, rather than selecting, customizing, and deploying initiatives that are tailored to the specific challenge being solved and the context they exist within.

To avoid these problems, businesses must commit to grounding every DEI-related effort with data, including both qualitative and quantitative, looking into important outcomes like well-being, upward mobility, enablement, efficacy, belonging, engagement, and many others.

That data can become the cornerstone of their DEI strategy and the initiatives they design to execute it. If the data shows improvement? They should do more of the same. If the data shows no improvement or backsliding? They should rethink their efforts, rather than persisting with initiatives that don’t work.   

How do you measure the effectiveness of your DEI efforts?

Every DEI initiative or practice should be designed to create a desired outcome. For example, an initiative to institute paid parental leave for parents should aim to ensure that workplace outcomes for new parents are no worse off than their colleagues. 

To measure the effectiveness of this effort, first identify which specific outcomes you’ll use to track your initiatives. In this example, I might pick wellbeing, engagement, retention, and promotion. We can then go into each with even more specificity.

Wellbeing might be measured by employee self-report with surveys asking about their mental and physical health and stress levels. We might also use other metrics like the number of sick days employees take during a given time period. 

Once we figure out what metrics are important to us and make a plan to gather them, we then do one measurement before we start a new DEI effort (to gather data on our baseline), then periodically collect more data over the course of our DEI initiative. 

For example, you might include wellbeing-related questions in a yearly all-company survey, and ask at least one free-response question about the efficacy of the new parental leave policy. 

If after a year, the gap in wellbeing scores between new parents and other employees has closed and qualitative data cites the new policy as a contributor to this improvement, you can conclude that your efforts were likely effective in increasing new parent wellbeing. 

Are there other organizations you admire for their approach to DEI?

There are several! Two that come to mind are Foley & Lardner, a law firm, and CultureAmp, an HR tech company. Both are led by DEI leaders (Alexis Robertson and Aubrey Blanche, respectively) who take a strong outcomes-centric and data analytics-driven approach to their DEI efforts.

The combination of skilled practitioners, an outcomes-driven approach, and a culture that is aligned with making measurable progress means that these organizations can articulate and understand their starting points, develop and execute novel ways to make progress drawing from cutting-edge research, and be constantly assessing, recalibrating, and learning from their efforts. 

How can organizations ensure remote workers are treated the same as onsite workers and have equal access to opportunities?

Many managers have a strong bias against remote work. Most lack formal training, knowledge, and skills to manage remote workers, and perform the stereotyped “role” of a supervisor—literally, physically “supervising” or looking at workers working—remotely. 

Given this, it’s unsurprising that around half of business leaders simply don’t trust remote workers to do their jobs from home, a distrust that has led them to insist on invasive monitoring software or draconian return-to-office demands—despite the mountain of evidence that remote work is just as, if not more productive, as working in person.

The individual biases of managers may be slow to change, but organizations can interrupt their managers’ biases and prevent discrimination by implementing processes that rely on data—not gut feelings—to make important decisions like promotion, evaluation, hiring, and firing, and proactively train managers about the most common ways these biases manifest. 

For example, many organizations have unique opportunities for workers to show that they are ready for promotion, like high-status projects or assignments. This kind of work is called glamor work, but is too often assigned in biased ways, to employees that managers like and to people who share the same social identities (race, gender, class, etc.) as their managers, rather than those readiest for the assignment. 

Proximity bias can affect the assignment of glamor work as well, resulting in remote employees being considered less often for these high-value assignments.    

To address proximity bias in this situation with process, structure, and training, an organization might do the following: 

  1. Rather than one large annual review, make frequent check-ins and regular feedback a normal part of the business cycle to make it easier for managers to share two-way feedback with all of their direct reports, whether in-person or remote.
  2. Clearly articulate the organization’s stance on remote work—ideally, that it is just as valuable, important, and productive as in-person work, and that a hybrid workplace makes space for all working arrangements without bias—and train all managers on how to manage hybrid work. Training can cover content ranging from how to facilitate hybrid meetings, how to manage 1:1 check-ins both in-person and remote, what kind of work is most effective in-person vs. remote, how to facilitate flexibility and work-life balance, and how to use different communication tools and platforms.
  3. Equalize the process for assigning glamor work. First, define what assignments are considered high-value and analyze who in the past has received these assignments. Then, consider using a rotation to ensure everyone has a chance to perform, creating a skills checklist managers must fill out before making assignments, or giving the assignment to a team rather than one person. Finally, re-assess the distribution of assignments periodically to note progress and tweak strategy. 

Is there a person in the world whom you would love to have a private lunch with, and why? 

I always struggle with questions like these! The folks I’ve enjoyed getting to know better over lunch have always been introduced to me based on our shared interest in building better workplaces, tackling discrimination and injustice, and making progress toward a better world. 

Rather than pick one of the many big names I respect, I’ll extend the offer to anyone who might see this who finds the idea of putting our heads together to do some good in the world intriguing. 

Thank you Lily, some great insights in there! How can our readers further follow your work?

I post most prolifically on LinkedIn, and you can also learn more about me and my work on my website and discover more about my methodology in my book, Deconstructing DEI: Your No-Nonsense Guide to Doing the Work and Doing it Right.

By Finn Bartram

Finn is an editor at People Managing People. He's passionate about growing organizations where people are empowered to continuously improve and genuinely enjoy coming to work. If not at his desk, you can find him playing sports or enjoying the great outdoors.