• Sherry

Learning about Bias with Sonya Kemp

How are you dealing with the level of change coming at you every month... or is it every day? Frankly, there has been no shortage of tragedies lately with COVID, fires, economic uncertainty and issues of social and racial justice. Many agree that we are at a significant crossroads and justifiably, it is exhausting.

Now is the time for us to step back and think about our choices. I am talking about all of us courageously pursuing a more equitable future, where diversity and transparency is at the highest level of conversation and action. For many of us, the comfortable choices may be more about maintaining the status quo instead of having the tough, necessary conversations.


I connected with my long-time friend and trusted colleague, Sonya Kemp, founder and CEO of LA-based EveryBusiness HR Essentials, to get her take on what she is seeing as her clients adjust to COVID as well as confronting issues of race and equity in their own organization. Sonya does not stay with the status quo. She is solution-oriented with a keen sense of the human element in any business. She sees first hand where people decisions intersect with key business decisions. Many of her clients are CEOs of emerging or mid-market companies dealing with the demands of being “essential-services businesses” in a moment concurrently demanding growth amidst uncertainty.

Sherry (SB): Tell me about how you see your clients handling conflicting tensions of this time?


Sonya Kemp (SK): There are so many layers. The pressure of delivering on the expected Employee Experience are high from the employer perspective.


Employees want a work environment that matches their consumer experience and supports how they think about their lives. This includes heightened expectations around flexibility, customized learning and state of the art tools. Then add COVID-19, and these difficult to fill workplace expectations create even more challenges as many employees (and their families) work from home. The barrier between home and work has dissolved – home is work and home is school – suddenly, employers are immersed in employee’s full lives.


It’s no surprise this new intimacy ushers in difficult conversations. Back in the office, there is no way a conference call would open with political chitchat or raw reactions to social unrest and racial injustice. Today there are no filters; with everyone online all the time, a relentless twenty-four hour news cycle and continuous social media news feeds, the very topics we discouraged be discussed at work are front and center. In fact, employees want to know the specifics -- if and how their employers will respond to these issues.


Many of our clients have a wide age span of workers inside their companies. The concern for safety is very high for some, not so much for others creating yet another challenge of managing through differing responses to COVID-19 protocols. Pre-COVID we might not have talked about politics or social injustice yet now there are very few filters and given the broad national issues we end up talking about this.


SB: Are business owners prepared to take on these more sensitive discussions and issues?

SK: Most are not. It’s a very different “bottom up” culture today in which younger workers are less hesitant to challenge a manager or a CEO – you might say, they are open to “raise their voice” on issues that we didn’t talk about at work before. Social media fuels this level of engagement and is more dangerous for many of us still lack the skills and sensitivities needed to talk about issues that are more personal.

More than ever, skilled managers are needed to harness talent across the diverse spectrum of age, race, gender, orientation and ability to achieve organizational goals.

SB: More companies are feeling the pressure and importance of bringing on managers who can lead diversity and inclusion. This is not a new role – what do you anticipate in change?

SK: While it feels good to see so many new open roles for Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer, VP Diversity and Inclusion, Equity, Belonging and Inclusion Manager and similar roles, I’d be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge I’ve seen this before.


The real question is, “are we seriously ready to take this on?” In the past, ethnic minorities were often tapped for these roles yet not provided C-level support, budget, staff or authority to create real and lasting change. Not surprisingly, nothing really changed.


Even today, given the current moment, a number of organizations are reaching out for single-instance training as a cure-all versus a shift to create new outcomes. And, while I absolutely agree, widespread, well-designed learning experiences are important, I am most optimistic about those organizations with CEO commitment to Diversity, Equity and Inclusion through words, staff, budget, metrics, contributions and strategic plans to bring about real and lasting shifts in the way they operate which supports lasting change.

We are fortunate to work with clients who want a Diversity Inclusion and Equity strategy and understand real change takes ongoing commitment over time.


As time passes these will be the organizations which truly transform and benefit from the lessons – positive and negative today’s challenges have provided.


SB: How are conversations changing?


SK: One particular client company is truly changing the conversation. They are tackling recruitment, hiring and mentoring. They are setting bold goals with clear-eyed acknowledgment of pockets of mostly people of color in lower ranks yet not in leadership. They understand that to not dig in and understand this outward oddity and unpack what it could mean, is a mistake for both their people and the community in which they operate from a recruitment and corporate citizen perspective. This is not a training program; this is a facilitated discussion about their desire for change and how to begin to imbed change and transparency in each of the processes I mentioned.

SB: From your experience, what gets in the way of a leadership team making changes to embrace diversity?

SK: Today it means you have to crisis manage on multiple concurrent fronts. You need to confront yourself and your leadership team – in a very difficult time. CEO’s are aiming to keep the doors open during a pandemic crisis, and in the midst of this, there is racial unrest and intense pressures for equality and for action. The business economics are on fire as though that is not enough, for in addition, the conversation about fairness, equity or racial issues is equally, and given recent national events, also ablaze.


With the impact of the pandemic, companies are clearly missing their financial targets. When we say the word diversity….people have a reaction to it. We don’t react to the word finance for example. But the topic of diversity creates anxiety. We have to confront this and it means that all the emotions such as avoidance, anger, belief change, or personal styles come into play and are so varied that it is truly difficult to manage all of this.


Our best chance for real change is to think differently now than how we did before. Imagine we consciously rotate in successful problem solvers from non - HR areas of the business to grapple with and bring new perspective to diversity and inclusion as a business objective. Then, we may even see the candidates for diversity officer coming from your own bench of talent. Maybe the answer is on the inside and not on recruiting someone from the outside.


SB: What are the needs you are fulfilling for your clients today?


SK: There are two types of needs we are fulfilling. One includes intensive unconscious bias training with hands on exercises. This is intended to raise the awareness of unconscious conclusions we reach about each other – and the implications to our work environment. We are humans who operate in a manner that could create inequities. We train employees and their leaders. What kind of decisions do you make about hiring, discipline, work assignments or an upcoming promotion? How does unconscious bias show up today?


Another client asked us to work with their internal diversity council to determine the charting out of diversity goals. We look at survey data, interviews and manager perspectives. One client is predominantly female, so the target has been to diversify hiring with male hires. The goal has been set to expand and diversify the talent pool in order to broaden the candidate slate.


SB: What is your recommendation for our reader?


SK: Resist the simple solutions, dig deeper. Have your leadership team ask themselves who they want to be and how do they want to serve. How does your diversity fit with your desire to engage multiple perspectives and innovative solutions so that you can compete more effectively?


To learn more about Sonya's company, visit their website here.

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© 2019 by S. Benjamins & Company, Inc.