Our thinking

Akia Parks talks fostering more inclusive workplaces with Built In Chicago

“The fish rots from the head.”

That’s the metaphor Akia Parks, a copywriter of clinical research at digital marketing agency closerlook, uses to describe why companies fail at intersectionality. Parks, a Black woman, said her company is aware of their white and mostly male executive suite. While diverse changes in leadership might not be immediate, their cooperation with employee-led DEI groups to enact meaningful changes, like ensuring equal pay across gender and race, don’t go unnoticed.

As the Black Lives Matter movement propels companies to make statements about diverse hiring effects and inclusivity, leaders are looking for concrete ways to implement those statements in action.

For the seven companies we talked to, that means allowing space for employees to initiate difficult conversations and change. Unconscious bias training, core human resource teams and diverse panels help show employees that leadership is serious about inclusivity. From there, they encourage employees to form their own DEI groups and support them in their needs.

“The best way to ensure all employee voices are heard, respected and valued is to ask, listen, then act, in that specific order,” Parks said.

What has been the most impactful action your company has taken to create a more inclusive work environment for your employees?

“When it comes to diversity and inclusion, closerlook is far from perfect. As an agency, it is overwhelmingly white, with only one woman and no people of color at the C-suite level. However, one of the reasons that I, as a Black woman, feel included is our willingness to invest time, money, energy and action into enacting meaningful changes at all levels.

Before addressing an issue of inclusion, it’s also important to address issues of diversity. They are not mutually exclusive. If it is blatant that a company does not value diverse voices by employing diverse people, marginalized groups won’t feel included.

closerlook has empowered and supported our diversity and inclusion committee by taking action on the goals we have outlined as change we’d like to see company-wide. We’ve held a candid conversation about diversity and inclusion within the agency, social unrest, Black Lives Matter and actionable things we can do to make our space more inclusive. Our D&I committee is working with our CEO to ensure equal pay across various lines of marginalization such as race and gender. We’ve also teamed up to make sure we are creating a more diverse pipeline of talent and providing training to employees on how to address implicit biases. There is still a lot of work to do, but for me, tangible action speaks volumes.”

What role do your employees play in leading or supporting inclusion efforts? What is the best way to ensure the voices of all employees are heard, respected and valued?

Employees play a huge role in supporting and leading inclusion efforts. It is important in any workplace to foster an affirming community where everyone feels like they’re all in it together. That starts with building relationships and having difficult conversations. At closerlook, employees who want to lead initiatives that address these issues are being supported, encouraged and given space to introduce ideas that stray from the ‘unspoken norms’ in our environment. It has also been equally important for other employees not leading these initiatives to lean into difficult conversations, open themselves up to learn or change their way of thinking, make space for their colleagues who feel excluded and build in accountability to make better habits and practices.

The best way to ensure all employee voices are heard, respected and valued is to ask, listen, then act, in that specific order. Employees have to feel that they are welcome to share their opinions in a respectful way without fear of retaliation if the leadership doesn’t like what they hear. When employees from marginalized communities speak, it is crucial that both leadership and other fellow staff come to listen, learn and compromise. Many times, coworkers aren’t intending to be racist, sexist or bigoted. They just have never given thought to the experience of someone who doesn’t look like them. In order to address the status quo, some folks are going to have to be a little uncomfortable.”

What advice do you have for other organizations looking to create a more inclusive work environment for their own teams?

“The saying goes, ‘The fish rots from the head.’ It is absolutely imperative to have the commitment and buy-in from leadership to set the tone for company priorities and culture. Assess the diversity and inclusion priority of the top folks at the table, whoever they are.

Whoever is in leadership, have the courage to stand up for what’s right. The stakes are much lower for a person in leadership to support a controversial change than for lower-level employees to do so. Don’t be afraid to assess where your company stands and challenge the norm. There are trainings and paid professionals who can make assessments and recommendations.

And when it comes time to implement change, pay for this work. Improving diversity and inclusion is not free labor. Studies have shown that an investment in diversity and inclusion is an investment in the financial success of a company. It really all comes down to committing to change and then taking action.”

A version of this article appeared on Built In Chicago.

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