Educator and human rights advocate, Nicole Lee, joins Traci Dority-Shanklin and shares her strategies in a podcast around equity and inclusion in the workplace and the dangers (or pitfalls) of meritocracy.

02:01 – Introducing Nicole Lee and Her Work in Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion

04:40 – Diversity: Is it Really a Numbers Game?

05:18 – How Does Your Company’s Diversity Report Card Fare?

07:01 – The Research is In! Diverse Teams are More Collaborative

08:56 – Folks Are Not Interested in Platitudes

10:38 – Room for Growth: When Companies Admit, They Don’t Do a Good Job

11:37 – Don’t Fall for the Meritocracy Trap

13:10 – Luck is Not Meritocracy

15:54 – The Real Issues: Qualifications, Access Points, Recruiting, & Retention

Narrator  0:03 

This is The World of Multiemployer Benefit Funds podcast with Traci Dority-Shanklin, if you’re interested in labor and union benefit funds, well, you’ve landed in the right place. We are a go-to source for all things union benefit fund related, and we are going to bring you interviews with key decision makers and fund professionals that guide these plans. They’ll share their insights, experience, unique perspectives, all of the latest developments, and tips to unlock the mysteries of multiemployer benefit funds. Time is short. So, let’s get started.

Traci Shanklin  0:37 

I am very excited for this episode about diversity and the systemic racism impacting America for personal and professional reasons. First, I am a white mother of a Haitian daughter. I have personally learned that it is not enough to acknowledge there is a race problem in America, but that I must find a way to be a part of the solution. Professionally as a proponent of multiemployer benefit funds, I know that the participants these plans serve are culturally diverse. It is our duty as money management firms that serve this client base that we are an active part of the healing. As money managers, we have a responsibility to change hiring practices, and be active in mentoring the diverse up and coming leaders of tomorrow. We are witnessing a shift in awareness in the investment industry thanks to the TimesUp, Metoo, and now Black Lives Matters movement, forcing firms to evaluate their internal diversity and their supplier diversity report cards.

Traci Shanklin  1:37 

Our guest for this subject is a diversity, equity, and inclusion strategist and human rights advocate, Nicole Lee. Nicole has dedicated her career to advocating, educating, and bridging solutions for minority groups. We have divided this conversation into three parts because it is powerful and packed with valuable information for both individuals and companies.

Traci Shanklin  2:01 

Here is part one outlining steps towards achieving diversity and inclusion within your company. So, Nicole, thank you so much for joining me today, I want to start by having you explain the work that you do and helping companies with their diversity management programs.

Nicole Lee  2:20 

Sure. So, I work in the areas of diversity, equity, and inclusion. All three of those are really important in order to see the changes that we want to see in our corporations and our nonprofits, and in our society as a whole. A lot of the work that I do tends to be around fact-finding, so assessments and audits for company, but auditing and assessing from the lens of diversity, equity, and inclusion.

Nicole Lee  2:47 

So, often times, we, you know, we do audits of our numbers; we do audits of even our climate; but really specifically focusing on diversity, equity, and inclusion, lets us know who is present, and who is not in our company. But then also lets us know why. Why are certain people attracted, and why are others not? Um, it also gets to the root of maybe some of the other issues that might be going on. So, I often tell my clients, I’ve actually never seen a management problem that didn’t have a diversity, equity, and inclusion challenge. And I’ve never had a diversity, equity, and inclusion challenge that did not also have a management component.

Nicole Lee  3:23 

So, really thinking about, you know, how we show up as leaders is a big part of it, how we show up as individuals working in teams, how do we collaborate? Whose voices do we listen to? So, I asked a lot of questions. And, and I also give a lot of recommendations. And because I work with a variety of organizations and companies, I’ve seen a lot of different things. I’ve seen some things not work so well. I’ve also seen a lot of growth for folks in this area. And I’ve been very proud of being a part of that for many companies.

Traci Shanklin  3:56 

So, what advice do you typically give companies when they want to achieve more diversity and inclusion?

Nicole Lee  4:04 

Well, often times people think of diversity as really a numbers game. And in part it is, right? How – with our percentage of people of color? What’s our percentage of women? What’s our percentage of LGBTQIA folks? The numbers only tell one part of the story. I often tell my clients that we really want to focus in first, in having an inclusive environment and inclusive climate, thinking about issues of equity, right? As it relates to have we given everyone or is everyone in a position at our company to have what they need to succeed, right?

Nicole Lee  4:40 

So, what the CEO needs is going to be different from what a manager needs; what a manager needs is going to be different than maybe what admin staff needs; etc; and so forth. But does everyone have what they need to be successful? Is the climate such that everyone can be successful in terms of what they’re supposed to be doing at the company? When we can focus on that then we’re in a place to say, okay, our climate actually is the type of climate that someone can walk in here, be someone who represents identities that maybe aren’t so representative here, right, but that they can walk in here and actually be successful in a very real way. And so, I work with companies to make sure we’re striving towards that.

Traci Shanklin  5:18 

That’s amazing. There was an article in Pension and Investments by the co-CEO of Arielle Investments Group, and he talks a lot about that very thing about it’s – it’s not just enough to do your report card, but it is – is very important that you have a pathway for the employees that they can actually see. And that they can achieve. And that’s part of recruitment – is having that very specific pathway, and that they can see people that look like them, that are their gender, that have achieved those goals within the company.

Nicole Lee  6:01 

It’s really true. And the other thing that I would say, is very different than what we were seeing prior to – to this particular, let’s say the last three-to-four years, is that it actually just doesn’t just have an impact on whether or not people with these diverse identities, whether they be people of color, again, women, etc., you know, whatever is diverse for your particular company, it’s not just important that they feel comfortable, that they can see themselves, it’s actually important for those high performing – specially younger employees to see that as well.

Nicole Lee  6:36 

Because often times, I’ve had companies come to me and say, well, it’s not just women; it’s not just people of color; it’s not just our LGBTQIA employees actually, like our white male employees are concerned and don’t feel that this might be a place for them in the long term. This is really important development because what we’re finding more and more is those high functioning employees – they also want to see diversity, even diversity that does not impact them necessarily in particular, but they know that it’s important.

Nicole Lee  7:01 

They know that diverse teams, and we have all the research is in, right? We know that diverse teams are more collaborative. They come up with better solutions; they come up deeper solutions that maintain for a longer period of time. And so, you know, employees know that. And so, a lot of high functioning employees, who you would not imagine are thinking about diversity, are thinking about it a lot and come to – to companies and also leave companies over it.

Traci Shanklin  7:33 

So, for those companies that are afraid to have these conversations, or that need to have these conversations, or in your work, have had them – what are the steps to creating that evolution within the company? Culturally?

Nicole Lee  7:47 

No, it’s really important. There’s so many, but just a few important ones. It’s very important for leadership to be engaged and bought in. And it’s important for leadership to be collaborative in the process, right? So, you can have folks really think that diversity, equity, and inclusion is important for the company and can make the business case, etc. But if the – the top leadership is not engaged, it’s much more difficult to see any change. And so really getting that top leadership bought in and the top leadership understanding that it’s not just bought in – in a moment, but bought in in the long term, like what is the long-term planning for a company look like when equity and inclusion is at the center?

Nicole Lee  8:32 

And I would say that another major issue is being honest about where you are when you begin, right? Often times, what I’ve seen companies do before they call me is they’ll say – they’ll go to their employees and say, “Well, we’ve always cared about this. We’ve always done this.” And often times there will be a very nicely written statement about how they care. But yet that has not been felt.

Nicole Lee  8:56 

You have to be honest about that. Folks are not interested in platitudes as much as they are in progress. And so, it goes much farther to say, you know what, “We’ve had this written down. We haven’t done a lot with it. We need to do more. I might be leader of the company, I need to do more. And these are the areas that I’m committed to doing more in.” That goes much further than making grand statements that say, we’ve always cared about this. And we’re going to do so many things. Now, folks know where they work. Folks know what has – what has been prioritized in word and in deed, and so really starting from that place of vulnerable honesty very often carries you much farther than saying the thing that you think is going to make people come down or be happy or you know, let the issue go. I think the last few years, especially the last few months have proven that this is an issue that’s – that has some staying power, this issue of racial equity, this issue of not just what goes on in our companies, but what goes on in our society as a whole. And we have so much so much energy is spent pretending that it’s not happening. And it’s not there.

Nicole Lee  10:07 

I’ve had many clients, some of Fortune 500 companies tell me that just by having the honest conversation that racism does exist, and it’s having an impact in and on our employees both internally, externally – even just those conversations has improved efficiency and collaboration. So, I just encourage it; it is the weight of things. And it is the expectation, if you will, of high performing employees at this point. And so, I’ve been very heartened, frankly, to see many more companies being willing to go there to have those hard conversations.

Traci Shanklin  10:38 

Well, I don’t think you can have ever bought anything online with a company and then not have an email that’s coming out saying that they’re in support of the Black Lives Matters movement, or racial equality, or diversity is pretty phenomenal. That from a corporate standpoint, they’ve realized whether there’s saying it, and it’s just, you know, verbal marketing, or whether they really mean it is a whole another debate we could get into, and to your point, I’ve seen some come out and say, we haven’t done a good job, you know, and we’re going to do better.

Nicole Lee  11:15 

That gives them a lot more room and space to grow, frankly, when one, you know, can give that assessment, and it’s great modeling to, for employees that like you know, what, hey, we can realize that some of the things that we’ve done in the past aren’t up to par. And but now we’re going to grow.

Traci Shanklin  11:31 

So, what do you say to a company that potentially has the written statement, and says, but we want to be a meritocracy. And we want diversity, but it should be based on merit. How do you address those – what, what sometimes can be perceived and or can come down to some conflicting ideals?

Nicole Lee  11:57 

Sure, I think so – when a client talks to me about meritocracy, one of the things I asked is, “What is the meritocracy built upon?” Right? Because that is not a concept that one can, you know, snatch from the air and say, “See, this is what we’re going to do?” What does that built upon? What is our society built upon? Right? And what is – what is our company built upon? So, we live in a society where we talk about meritocracy a lot, but we actually don’t live that.

Nicole Lee  12:26 

We live in a society where people from their very birth, their entire trajectory can be determined by their zip code. A lot of their trajectory can be determined by their race. And we certainly do have exceptions to this, right? Often times, people say, “Well, what about Oprah Winfrey? What about Michael Jordan?” Absolutely, we have cases where folks have been able to, you know, come from that zip code that may not have afforded them the best school, but they’ve been able to through a series of luck, right? Just luckiness, if you will, been able to overcome and, you know, achieve the top of their field and – and be at the top of our society. That’s true.

Nicole Lee  13:10 

But the issue around luck is really important because luck is not meritocracy, right? One should not have to be lucky, or a chosen few, in order to be able to rise in their career or rise in their status in society. But that’s frankly, what we have. We have notions or myths, if you will, around – especially around the American dream, but certainly around what needs to be achieved in order to be seen as being successful, that, frankly, are built upon uninterrogated opinions about class, and race, and gender in this society and many other things in this society.

Nicole Lee  13:48 

I often say to people, when you think about Ivy League schools, let’s take Princeton, for example. Lots of folks are talking about Hamilton these days, so we’ll talk about Princeton for a moment. Princeton was built to serve very particular people. Right? That is the foundation. There – it was built to serve white men whose parents owned land, right? And Princeton has diversified, right? Princeton has women in their ranks; they have gender non-binary folks that attend the school. They have people of color certainly, Eddie Glaude, Jr, who is a fairly famous professor. He also spends a lot of time on MSNBC is the head chair of a department there, right? So, it’s diverse. But what Princeton understands – what a lot of Ivy League schools and a lot of institutions understand is yes, but when our founding was for particular people, we have to work to maintain access, if you will, for folks that don’t fit into those categories. Once we do that, then we can talk about meritocracy, right?

Nicole Lee  14:53 

We can’t talk about it if we’re not willing to engage with what the founding look like. And even in some of our companies, you know, I work with companies all over. And I’ve had folks say to me, “Well, you know, we founded this company because a couple of our friends were interested in the same work. And we decided to found it together, right.” And we met through – you asked how they, they met – often, it’s networks that are fairly exclusive. Often times, our friend groups in the society do not actually reflect the society as a whole. So, there is research that shows that most white people do not have friends of color, right? So, if we base our decision making our initial decision making our initial founding on our bias, right, and this and I’m really talking about unconscious bias, not bias that we’re aware of, but how we are taught through our society of who’s kind of in and who’s not a part of our group, if you will; you’re not going to be in a good position to make an argument about meritocracy. And yet, this is often times what companies are saying.

Nicole Lee  15:54 

The only last thing that I will say is often times, when people talk about hiring for inclusion or hiring for diversity, equity, and inclusion, people say, “Well, no, we should hire based upon you know, someone’s quote unquote, merit and experience.” And my question back to them is often, “Do you believe that people of color or women or LGBTQI folks, etc.? Do you believe that those folks would not inherently have those qualifications?” And oftentimes, people say, “Well, no, of course not.” Well, then hiring for diversity, equity, and Inclusion should not be as big of a concern. And then you get to more of what the issues are.

Nicole Lee  16:32 

And often times, the issues are really about how to find folks, where the access points, how do we recruit, how do we retain? What do we have to change about our culture, right, to bring folks in? What do we have to change about how we do business that makes it possible for us to have a more diverse workfo – workforce, and then that’s where decision making comes in. That’s where the decision-making process happens.

Traci Shanklin  16:55 

That’s amazing. And I hope that listeners in a position of power hear that diversity isn’t just saying, we have a meritocracy. Like you said, achieving a true meritocracy may require your company to look outside their traditional box when hiring or even promoting people to leadership positions. We have to do a better job at making these opportunities available. As you said, I think there’s a lot of proof that you get these very collaborative, thoughtful, and innovative minds together working as a team. It’s a win-win for everyone.

Traci Shanklin  17:28 

This concludes the first part of my conversation with diversity, equity, and inclusion strategists and human rights advocate Nicole Lee. Thank you for joining the conversation where listeners connect with leading experts throughout the financial and investment world. Until next time, be part of the change.

Traci Shanklin  17:45 

And that’s it for this week’s episode of The World of Multiemployer Benefit Funds podcast. We’d love to hear from you, and if you have any comments, questions, or suggestions, head over to www.multiemployerfunds.com, and let us know. Thank you for joining us and we look forward to next time.