Rui Bashir [left], Liesl Theron [author], and the volunteer team who visited Casa Frida.
What can corporate organizations learn from South Africa? Possibly the most prominent lesson to learn is that DEI (Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion) is not a trickle-down effect that will show results after a dash of diversity is added to the organization for the sake of compliance. “South Africa, by default, always had diversity, what was lacking was inclusion and then belonging.” This summarizes the conversation with Rui Bashir (he/him), a South African and Human Resources Leader with 10+ years of professional experience in Sub-Saharan Africa, Latin America, and Asia Pacific.
Often when organizations aim to achieve compliance-related DEI goals, it does not reach the heart of the organization – employees still feel misunderstood, excluded or don’t find the much-needed psychological safety to be their true selves. If not approached candidly, DEI efforts might result in an artificial process with no real results.
According to Rui, employees should always be the focus of a DEI approach:
“Don’t make this about compliance. It should not be the primary reason. Compliance will be achieved as an outcome [obviously]. Don’t make your DEI efforts about targets that needs to be checked, just to reach a sustainable development goal. The main reason should be employee well-being, engagement, and innovation that will drive business. It should be about building a competitive and vibrant organization and ensure that talent is the competitive advantage – meaning that the organization would sustain engaged employees and unleash innovation, collaboration, sense of belonging and loyalty; building a community of employees that would bring their true selves to work and in exchange, this will support the organization to achieve greater heights. So it should be about people, everything else is going to be an outcome, a result of.”
The benefits of inclusion are tangible:
An organizational culture of inclusion allows for minorities to bring their true selves to work.
It drives creativity, innovation, collaboration, respect, and creates a higher level of engagement, and intent on the part of employees to stay.
The customer base is diverse, so if the workforce mirrors that customer base, the customers have a greater experience and therefore loyalty to the organization.
Employee Resource Groups / Affinity Groups
Organizations of all sizes and budgets should view the Employer Resource Groups (ERGs) also known as Affinity Groups as a strong element to drive DEI.
ERGs are composed of staff who collaborate voluntarily, they have a passion for a specific topic (or range of topics), and as a team they drive the diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts within the organization. By supporting the in-house ERGs, a range of organizational DEI efforts will also support the broader compliance goals that are required for corporate citizenship.
For ERGs to succeed, they need one or more organizational leader sponsoring their efforts, championing their work, and serving as a liaison to other leaders and executives to secure funding, permissions, and other resources they need to grow and thrive.
If you are a Human Resources professional or ERG member and experience challenges getting management on board, here are some ideas for how to secure sponsorship from your leadership:
Bring in an expert in the field of the ERG you want to start to deliver a talk. One great suggestion would be to bring an activist or organization that is involved and invested in the target issues and/or communities.
Engage with other organizations that are also going through a DEI journey and are in a more matured state. When you bring in somebody that has gone through the process to deliver a testimonial, it always adds a lot of power to your message and sustains advocacy.
Team spirit is important for the ERG team, and someone must take the first step. Sometimes you might hesitate, as you think that leadership buy-in will be challenging to secure, or it will be too complex, but if this is something that is for the greater good, take that first step forward.
Teamwork makes the dream work. Build allyship as it will be challenging to proceed alone, but it is more manageable for a group of people wanting to take that first step together. A lot of ERGs start with 2 or 3 employees who say, “But why don’t we do that?” and they get together, and they recruit allies that share the same interest on a certain topic, and later they form an ERG, because there is someone or a group of employees who took that first step forward.
If it is a larger organization that is publicly listed, it might even be worthwhile to link your efforts to the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which create some pressure to comply. Depending on the sector the organization operates in, there will be several SDGs to link to the effort.
Starting LGBTQ+ ERGs / Affinity Groups
We can take a few pages from Rui Bashir's book on the process of bringing inclusion for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex, queer (LGBTIQ+) people to the corporate world as an HR Leader. During his career working for different organizations within different regions, ERGs have always been a strong tool to drive LGBTIQ+ inclusive DEI.
Specific to human resources, it is always important to build inclusive talent management processes and create a space where everyone has a sense of belonging to the organization. As humans we seek to belong. The need to feel connected, affiliated with, and accepted by members of a team is an integral part of our nature.
Specific to LGBTIQ+ inclusion, it is always important to create a space to foster inclusion. There are some important steppingstones in this journey that all ERGs and HR Leaders should be mindful of: one of them is Pride Month. Use this month to raise awareness of LGBTIQ+ topics for all employees throughout the organization. Ensure that all your regional hubs feel included as well. The landscape of LGBTIQ+ inclusion varies significantly from region to region, so be mindful of that and tailor very specific approaches that would address such differences and generate that level of desired psychological safety for the employees.
For example, my colleagues and I who are located in Mexico recently volunteered together at Casa Frida, a shelter in Mexico City, which was established in 2020 in response to LGBTIQ+ homeless people – a population that was particularly affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. After engaging with Casa Frida management and recruiting volunteers, as a team we spent an afternoon at Casa Frida. The objective was not just to deliver donations. We also wanted to connect with Casa Frida and their residents. We prepared a luncheon to get the conversation started with around 30 trans, gender-fluid, and gay community members who were sheltered by Casa Frida. The value of our visit lay in the conversations and the social connection with everyone. It was a significant learning experience, and we were all blessed with the opportunity created by Casa Frida to spend time with them.
Casa Frida, Mexico City – a shelter for LGBTIQ+ persons from Central America
This was one example of volunteers getting together and making something meaningful happen and making an impact for the greater good on society at large.
There is a saying I learnt while living in Mexico that I always cherish: “aportar nuestro granito de arena” -- which loosely translates into English as: “to make our own small contribution to the society.”