Melinda Wolfe on What’s Essential to Improving Workplace Diversity

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Melinda Wolfe has seen employers make important strides in diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) over the years, but she’s also seen setbacks. And she’s learned that to avoid setbacks and continue progress, employers have to be open to change and make systematic improvements to policies and practices in the workplace.

Wolfe, founder and principal consultant at Melinda B. Wolfe & Associates, held high-level positions, including in DEI roles, at an array of large companies—giants such as Goldman Sachs and American Express among them—before starting her diversity-focused consultancy. But when she started her career in the 1980s after finishing graduate school at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government, she hoped to do public policy work.

Economic realities being what they were at the time, that opportunity wasn’t available. So, she ended up in the Wall Street setting, where she later took the opportunity to work in a diversity strategy role. It was supposed to be a 1-year assignment, “but once I turned the corner, I really felt so passionate and excited by the work, that I continued to stay in a ‘people’ related role for the rest of my career,” she says.

“So, I would say that for me, doing work in diversity and inclusion was kind of a coming home to the values that I started with when I embarked on my career but didn’t pursue because of the economic realities of the world at that time. I was fortunate to have an opportunity to circle back and do work that is so meaningful,” Wolfe says.

Early Career Successes

One early success story involves an effort that grew representation of women at the managing director and partner levels at Goldman Sachs. Then came the economic downturn of 2008, and unfortunately, “there was a lot of backpedaling,” not just at her firm but at others, too. When the economy recovered and companies started to build back, “they were coming from behind.”

But even with the setback, “there was a renewed focus and actual continual progress” when the economy recovered, Wolfe says. And that’s a pattern she’s noticed in other booms and busts. Increases in representation of people from diverse backgrounds occur during economic booms and backpedaling is typical when the economy goes down.

How can employers overcome that tendency? “That’s a very significant question that has to do with making major institutional and cultural changes rather than just focusing on representation,” Wolfe says. Many firms have great initiatives focused on DEI but ultimately, it’s the institutional systems and practices that need to be transformed and that is a much more challenging undertaking.

Top Down, Bottom Up, Even ‘Permafrost’

Real transformation comes from both the top down and the bottom up, Wolfe says. Too many DEI strategies don’t take a full and systematic approach to attacking problems in the workplace, she says.

“So, my view is that you have to work with the top leaders and help them to understand the structural constraints in their institutions. They need to transform their thinking, to understand the systematic ways we unintentionally diminish our DEI efforts,” Wolfe says. Those top leaders need to be not just allies in diversity but also advocates of change. “This is tough because oftentimes change threatens the very existence of long- entrenched values that they represent.”

“It’s a big challenge, but very wide-eyed and open company leaders can and are able to do it—we are seeing it,” Wolfe says. At the same time, she says “it’s important to drill down into the organization to understand the needs of employees.”

She says companies need to “bring the bottom to the top and the top to the bottom, so there’s a convergence of awareness and an understanding of the needs of a diverse employee base.” Also, what she calls the “permafrost level” needs to be involved—the middle managers and new managers are critical to addressing change.

Too often, people get promoted to the manager level because they were good at the job they were doing, not because they’re good at managing difficult situations and people who are very different from them, Wolfe says. That’s why she likes to work with new managers to get them the tools they need to better manage their teams with the lens of equity and engagement…

Source: HR Daily Advisor

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