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Creating inclusive workplaces is crucial for any organization that wants to get the most out of its talent. This means creating 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. In this series, we asked prominent HR and business leaders about the steps they take to create more inclusive workplaces.

Trisch Smith

Trisch Smith

For a decade, Smith led Edelman’s award-winning Multicultural practice providing senior counsel to a wide range of clients to protect, promote and evolve their brands and effectively engage diverse thought leaders, consumers and other stakeholders. In 2015, she was appointed to serve as the U.S. Managing Director of Diversity and Inclusion, and in fall 2018 she was named Edelman’s first Global Chief Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Officer. In this role, she oversees diversity, equity and inclusion strategic planning, education, cultural transformation, external partnerships, and recruitment efforts to ensure Edelman’s workforce reflects the increasingly diverse marketplace. As part of her work, she actively strives to ensure an equitable and inclusive workplace.

Hi Trisch, welcome to the series. We’d love to get to know you a bit better, how’d you get to where you are today?

As a young girl, one of the biggest comments from my teachers was that I wouldn’t stop talking. This trend continued throughout my life and, as a teenager, I decided I wanted to go into television broadcasting. 

In fact, I obtained an undergraduate degree in communications and a master's degree in broadcast journalism. After doing some freelance broadcast work, I shifted my focus from on-air news reporting to public relations, helping clients tell their stories in the media and via other channels.

When I first started at the global communications firm Edelman post-graduate school two decades ago, I often didn’t see others like myself—internally or in client meetings. 

Years later, I would become the firm’s first-ever Global Chief DEI Officer, a role and responsibility I still hold today. 

My early career experiences have motivated me to prioritize and commit to this work, to actively create a place where everyone—even a young Black woman from a small town in rural Southern Maryland, who attended Morgan State University, a Historically Black College & University—can feel that they play a crucial role in a globe firm and industry. 

To know that they are seen AND their voice is heard and respected, and to create a space where they can be their authentic selves every single day.

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

I once had a client meeting with an energy company at one of their plants and showed up in the wrong clothes: heels and a skirt. I thought we were gathering for a traditional meeting, not a plant tour! 

Clearly, I missed that memo and I had to race to the only store, miles away, to buy rubber-soled shoes and pants. I learned quite a bit from this experience—don’t assume all the information you need will be shared and ask questions. Finally, always be prepared to pivot and change course, if/when needed.

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?

My mom is one of my biggest teachers and cheerleaders. Even when I’ve experienced moments of self-doubt, she has encouraged me to believe I could do anything. 

As a third-grade teacher in Southern Maryland for 40 years and raising two children, she constantly had to advocate for herself, her children, and her students. 

Her drive, and that of the many women in my family, provided a first-hand example of how women and women of color are capable of all things despite the inequalities and “isms” of society.

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

One of my favorite life lessons is from Shirley Chisholm, the first Black woman to serve in the US Congress.  

Chisholm said, "If they don't give you a seat at the table, bring a folding chair." 

She was bold and courageous and summoned people of color, especially women, to demand a seat at the table and fight for our voices to be heard. 

Throughout my career and life, I’ve been empowered by this quote and have also expanded it by adding “Build your own table, if necessary!”

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

First and foremost, you absolutely do not have to prove your value or your worth to anyone. Don’t be limited by others’ expectations or thoughts, or get consumed by how you think you should look or how you think you should operate. Be you and know that you are more than enough—just as you are!

Secondly, you don’t need to have all the answers immediately. Even for those of us who are type-A, I know we like having it all figured out before even getting started but be willing to take – and give yourself – time. The answers will unfold along the journey. 

Lastly, don’t let fear consume you. It’s OK and even healthy to have a bit of it, but don’t let it paralyze you or stop you from pursuing your purpose! Don’t be afraid to fail, rather fail forward. 

Believe me, you will only regret the time you think you lost, the lessons you missed or the opportunities you passed up because of fear.

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

First, there must be a dedicated leader and proactive team in place that is committed and dedicated to driving diversity, equity, inclusion (DEI), and belonging. 

DEI should be integrated into all business operations—not a siloed effort that only the DEI or HR team manages. 

A multi-year plan must be created to drive the work, and there must be systems in place to monitor DEI efforts and track progress against instrumental goals tied to your overall strategy. 

Communicating that strategy and everyone’s roles in advancing the work is imperative. DEI is a culture outcome and an ongoing journey, not an end-goal.  

Edelman’s 2023 Trust Barometer special report on Business and Racial Justice unpacks the growing expectations for businesses to address racism in the workplace and drive DEI. 

The findings reveal a major disconnect between how senior executives and associate-level employees think their company is doing to make progress on this front and advance inclusion and equity within the organization. 

Our data shows that executives, while part of the problem, hold responsibility for the solution to advancing DEI in their organizations. 

CEOs need to hold their senior management accountable. In addition to this, organizations need to elevate employee voices, establish a shared understanding of the DEI strategy, and communicate the benefits of the work to the organization. 

These components working together advance employee engagement and their sense of loyalty and belonging while unlocking returns on the bottom line.

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

1.  Establish and maintain accountability. The "diversity" and "equity" parts of DEI are primarily the responsibility of managers and leaders. However, inclusion and belonging are influenced by everyone. How are you equipping leaders and employees with the resources, knowledge, and tools to be effective and then holding them accountable for progress? For example, establishing leader DEI KPIs will ensure it is a priority in their day-to-day work.

2. Cultivate community. This can take a variety of forms such as Employee Networks or Resource Groups (ENGs), citizenship/non-profit initiatives, or volunteer programs. At Edelman, our Employee Network Groups have helped our employees stay connected and support each other through various social issues as we all have navigated the COVID-19 pandemic. Over the years, we've leveraged the groups to participate and help lead conversations about race, social injustices, allyship, and more. In the conversations, employees shared powerful personal experiences, transparent feelings, and deep concerns surrounding recent social and racial events. 

3. Provide psychological safety. Create safety through courageous conversations and forums for employees to share ideas and learn from one another to increase understanding. These open, honest discussions have been instrumental during periods of heightened anxiety and uncertainty that derive from times of crisis or violence, like what we’ve seen against different racial and LGBTQ+ communities. Learning and development tools like inclusive leadership training also help leaders to foster psychological safety by creating an environment where people aren’t afraid to ask questions or to fail.

4. Invest in learning and development. This can be done both informally and formally. Courses around intentional inclusion, cultural competency, and unconscious bias are valuable in making real culture change. Informally, you might incorporate DEI learnings into regular meetings by sharing an interesting article or suggesting a podcast to your team.

5. Communicate transparently. Incorporate DEI messaging into all messages throughout the organization, not just those originating from the DEI team or HR. That helps set the tone and tenor and ensures all colleagues understand where the organization stands and its ongoing progress. Everyone has a role in upholding DEI, especially aspects of inclusion and belonging, and everyone needs to be informed and understand what resources are available.

It’s important to understand the unique makeup and dynamics of your organization and its various needs to ensure you create a plan that will resonate.

Can you share 3 or 4 of the most common mistakes you have seen businesses make while trying to become more inclusive?

  • Utilizing a one-size-fits-all approach. DEI means many different things in different parts of the world and to different people. Additionally, every organization and business are different. It’s important to understand the unique makeup and dynamics of your organization and its various needs to ensure you create a plan that will resonate.
  • Underfunding DEI activities. Dedicate the proper resources to the work as you would any other business unit or priority. You need proper staffing and a real budget to drive this work. 
  • No incremental DEI goals. It’s important to understand where your organization is currently before mapping out your desired outcomes. Are you just starting on your DEI journey or are you a few years in? How will you keep up the momentum and progress over time?
  • Not understanding your audiences. It takes time to understand the needs, desires and expectations of your audiences. What do your employees need to grow, develop and feel included? What social issues may be most important to them? Tap into your employee network and resource groups and digest the findings from employee surveys to hear from them firsthand. Similarly, ask yourself what your customers need to hear, know and see as it pertains to your organization’s commitment to DEI. While on your DEI journey, you must keep audiences apprised of where you—have you met your goals? Where are you having challenges? What is your stance on key issues?

How do you measure the effectiveness of your DEI efforts?

While there is no cookie-cutter approach to driving or tracking DEI success, there are several ways to measure the effectiveness of your DEI efforts. 

One measure is workforce diversity and talent representation—are you able to attract and maintain diversity in your workforce? Do you have diversity at all levels, including leadership? Do all employees feel that they can grow and thrive? 

Leadership and employee involvement are other ways to measure efforts. As such, monitor involvement from senior members of your team via DEI-specific KPIs and participation in initiatives like mentorship and sponsorship programs. 

Employee sentiment and feelings of belonging are another type of measurement. Through focused employee feedback surveys or focus group settings, other indicators of employee sentiments on inclusion or belonging can also be assessed.

Incorporating these practices, programs, and culture change initiatives will help you grow the impact and meet changing demands.

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

Different businesses are driving change in varied ways; it all comes down to staying true to your company’s mission and values and the critical wants and needs of your stakeholders.

I have admired some of the work of our Unilever client’s brands to raise awareness and drive change on key social issues such as hair discrimination and body positivity.

Ben and Jerry’s has also taken a stand on timely issues, like racism and police brutality. Some of the work our Edelman Genentech client is doing to build community internally and create meaningful goals for their workforce and society through their 2025 Diversity & Inclusion Commitments demonstrates their long-term ambition.

Also Read: The Future of DEI: Realigning in a Politically Charged Climate

What do you do to address Proximity Bias? How do you ensure remote workers are treated the same as onsite workers and have equal access to opportunities?

It's crucial to consciously practice inclusiveness every day and to encourage managers to do the same. 

Whether a person is in the office sitting next to you or not, every interaction is unique, and each person should be treated fairly and equitably. 

Best practices for hybrid working center on a variety of factors such as modifying how meetings are conducted or changing who sets the agenda. 

Make sure you have inclusive technology tools as well. Perhaps everyone involved needs to use their own laptop so that others watching remotely can see everyone’s faces clearly, or dedicate some meetings to no cameras required. 

It's also crucial to proactively communicate your commitment to inclusively as well. Take a moment to recall who is or is not on the call. If a meeting is taking place at an unusual or difficult time for another colleague, can you record it to make it accessible to those who could not join in real-time? 

Make sure you have a comprehensive understanding of performance when it comes to performance reviews. Do you ask your coworkers and customers for feedback? Do you fully comprehend the impact your team is having and the contributions made by each member?

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

There are several people I’d like to talk with but one person who stands out is Oprah. She is part of the reason I originally wanted to enter into broadcast journalism. 

I’d like to discuss how she has used, established and maintained her voice and broadened her platform over the years. In addition, she has always found new ways to amplify her POV and share her views across different mediums—TV, magazines, film and beyond. 

I’d love to hear her incredible stories and powerful insights that haven’t already been shared publicly. 

Thank you Trisch, some great insights in there! How can our readers further follow your work?
Follow me on LinkedIn or on IG at @trischlsmith.

More insights from the series:

Finn Bartram
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.