Interview: African philosophy shapes corporate DE&I

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IN February, I had the good fortune to chat with Melissa Bosch, diversity and inclusion lead at EY Ireland, writes Orla Clancy. Originally from Cape Town, South Africa, she has lived in Ireland for 10 years and identifies as Afro-Irish. 

Bosch shared that her ethos is seeded in the African philosophy of Ubuntu – the universal bond of sharing that connects all humanity. “Ubuntu encourages a culture of belonging, equity, and inclusion. For me, diversity, equity, and inclusion (DE&I), through the lens of our shared humanity, is about valuing difference and unlocking the potential of marginalized and underrepresented groups by breaking down barriers to inclusion, building access to opportunities, and creating environments where people feel like they genuinely belong and are truly valued.”

Right now, every organization is taking a step back and looking at their DE&I efforts. If not active participants yet, it is there in their subconscious. For Bosch, what has had the biggest impact on the DE&I movement globally? “Over the last year, we’ve all been weathering the same storm but we’re not all in the same boat,” she said. “Significant challenges have revealed themselves in the form of Covid-19, an economic depression, heightened global political tensions, and racial and social injustice. The pandemic has magnified inequities.

“We know that women, LGBTQI+ employees, ethnic minorities, and working parents are having a tough time. As a DE&I lead, I knew we needed to maintain our strategic focus on diversity, equity, and inclusion during lockdown – putting our colleagues at the heart of what we do, with a keen focus on maintaining our culture of belonging and leading inclusively and with compassion.”

Linking the pandemic and DE&I practices, Bosch said that, “With the challenges, the pandemic has also presented us with an opportunity to re-think, re-design, and re-imagine how we work and how we engage our colleagues and deepen our relationships with each other. We found new and exciting ways to use technology to enable and empower our employee-led networks to grow their communities, create supportive virtual environments, and help bring people together.”

Bosch has a number of different inspirational heroes who she believes embody DE&I. “I admire many advocates and activists for inclusion and their relentless work to affect positive change. People like Nelson Mandela, Desmond Tutu, Jacinda Ardern, Laura Liswood, and Ruth Bader-Ginsburg have shaped my view on what is possible. But when I think of who inspired me to do what I do, and be who I am, I have to say my parents. My parents grew up in apartheid South Africa. They worked tirelessly to break down barriers to inclusion for themselves, my sister and I, and the broader community. They taught me that I have a voice, that I am valued and valuable. When I wake up with gratitude each morning it’s because of the sacrifice they made. I recognize the indignities they suffered, and I understand that I stand on the shoulders of giants, that I am privileged, and I am compelled to use my privilege for good.”

For companies, DE&I policies need to be integrated, genuine and widespread. Transformative business leaders bring out the best in everyone, including themselves, by fostering inclusive, open and safe environments. They harness the power of diversity and create equitable growth opportunities for their people.

Bosch opines that there needs to be leadership buy-in and commitment to create a culture of inclusion. “Leadership should be capable of speaking authentically about why they believe in the importance of DE&I and have the knowledge and tools necessary to embed inclusive leadership behaviors and practices across all of their business areas and processes. This should cover everything from employee experience, reward and promotion, to brand and client engagement.”

For business leaders embracing DE&I, they need to understand the makeup of their organization, departments and teams and the various employee experiences across the lifecycle using qualitative and quantitative data points that can be analyzed against a number of diversity characteristics, such as gender, ethnicity, LGBTQI+  status, for disparities.”

“CEOs need to ensure there is a defined executive-mandated DE&I strategy in place that is widely communicated across the organization. This strategy is often driven by a dedicated representative steering committee. It should have leadership accountability measures in place and use data analytics to track progress on activities and interventions,” Bosch said.

Organizations have quickly become aware of the need to foster a more diverse, equitable and inclusive company culture. EY has an integrated approach to diversity and inclusiveness that outlines a roadmap for success – the EY Culture Change Continuum. This enables leaders to nurture an inclusive environment, where people can better leverage their diverse skills, experiences and cultural backgrounds. “As companies create an environment where employees feel like they belong, it’s also important to celebrate and recognize uniqueness,” said Bosch.

“It starts with valuing difference and demonstrating DE&I benefits to the business. Then, it’s about identifying meaningful changes that value the experiences of others and identify barriers to their full engagement. It is important to practice and model inclusive collaboration and leadership by closing gaps between intentions and behaviors. This is particularly important and relevant during times of uncertainty. Leading companies are increasingly enabling culture change by influencing and inspiring inclusive leadership behaviors through what is expected and reinforced,” she explained.

As with all corporate strategies, for it to be effective, business leaders need to reach their intended audience in a meaningful way. A critical part of implementing DE&I policies throughout an organization is communication. Bosch said that, “To foster buy-in, it is critical that there is a communication strategy in place and it uses inclusive language to inform, educate, and support all employees. Employees should be aware of the strategy and focus areas, leadership commitment, their role in creating an inclusive environment, and should be updated on a regular basis on the progress being made. Transformative DE&I culture change campaigns also demand candid and authentic conversations. They require listening, dialogue, and the opportunity to ask questions. This gives individuals and communities a voice and sense of belonging, while breaking the stigma around topics like privilege, gender, race, and identity.”

Externally, EY communicates its commitment to DE&I with clarity. It leverages its position as a leading professional services organization to be a progressive, disruptive voice in the area. As an employer of choice, EY wants to be recognized as the most inclusive employer for diverse minds. It wants to use its experience and expertise to benefit the industries and communities it works in because “it is only through our collective efforts that we can build a better working world for all.”

As the conversation comes to a close, we reflect on how we live in a world where transparency and accountability are expected from organizations, by both their internal and external audiences. Leaders are now acknowledging different perspectives and not only embracing but planning for change. They are creating a culture where a sense of belonging and value are part of the organization’s DNA.