Credit: Jeffrey Mossier

The current return to office period is rife with questions about inclusion. Principal among them is how do you use the shifts around work to make workplaces more inclusive for workers of color especially?

For answers, we reached out to Daisy Auger-Domínguez, who wrote the new book Inclusion Revolution and is the chief people officer at Vice Media Group. Here is a transcript of our conversation, edited for clarity:

Research suggests that level of engagement by workers of color and sense of fairness in the workplace has risen amid remote work, which Slack's Future Forum has interpreted as meaning that there is less code switching and workplace toxicity than when in person. What's your view of this?

I'm not 100% behind that notion—it depends on the company and the industry. There are some organizations and industries for which I can see how that might be true. Working remotely, you don't have to be subjected to everyday microagressions or put on what I call your emotional armor because you don't know what's going to come at you. Absolutely, that is real. But there are also power dynamics and power abuses over video. I see it in the case of people hanging up on videos. Who feels they have the right to hang up versus who doesn't?

I see it in who shows their image versus who doesn't show their image. I see it in who chats and who doesn't need to chat. The social force that makes you think, 'Well, if everyone's chatting then I need to chat,' is the exact same pressures that you had in-person when you were in a meeting where people would talk and you felt like, 'Do I need to raise my hand? When do I raise my hand? When do I speak up?' While there are some companies and industries where I can see that change being significant, we've all been socialized to behave these ways. Whether it's on video or in person, people can't help themselves—because if they haven't done the work, they don't know.

We've all read in the past two years about the best norms for holding meetings on videos, which requires managers to be even more attentive to social cues, connections, and norms. It's the exact same thing that you would need for someone to be thinking when they're in person. A manager needs to take in cues from their teams, they need to understand the dynamics of each of their team members, and they need to be able to call out those behaviors when they happen. That can happen in person or on video.

You've probably seen Ellen Pao's Project Include work, which has shown that the incidents of harassment have gone up for women and people of color...

I've worked in tech, and it's more dangerous because people feel they have more freedom to be abusive and hostile because you're not going to have that moment in person. Bullies sometimes are the weakest beings in these entities because it's easy to bully and then walk away and nothing happens to you. But when you're in person, that's more challenging. The concept of inclusion, belonging and building connection is about building trust and connectivity and liking each other. Being back in person at the office, I've been saying to my teams, 'Goodness, we've forgotten how much we liked each other.' We've forgotten how nice it is to be with each other as humans and build that connective tissue, and we were allowing some behaviors to happen on video that are harder to do in person. It can go both ways. For those who are more prone to bullying and microaggressions, it's so much easier to do it and then just click the button without thinking about any repercussions.

What are the specific dimensions of inclusion that are most relevant and urgent in this moment when organizations are bringing workers back into offices?

We've spent a lot of time trying to prepare our teams to come back to offices. I'm not great at branding, but I've been calling it 'the Ease Back.' We're not returning to offices. We're easing back to offices. We had to stop going to offices so abruptly. Everything has been so jarring for us in the last two years, so we've been looking at it as an ease back. Part of it is also buying ourselves time to rebuild our muscles for commuting and for managing teams that are now hybrid. We spent the entire summer last year, categorizing all of our employees into the hybrid models. Like most companies, about 80% to 85% of our employees are hybrid.

The remaining 10% to 15% are mostly remote or mostly in office. That hasn't changed. We came back and we've spent a lot of time trying to give voice to employees. That's one of the most important dimensions. It is what clearly came up in the summer of 2020 as one of the elements that employees felt they didn't have, from a power perspective. This is about power dynamics. It's not about having voice and being able to ask for what they need and what they deserve in a way that allows both and individuals to perform to their fullest capacity. Managers and leaders might be insisting that they want employees in the office, but we have to give voice to their concerns and then respond—not react—in a thoughtful way.

We keep talking about the future of work. We're kind of in it now, but we don't know what it's going to be. We're all shaping it right now. There's voice, and then there's language. We've been very, very intentional about the language that we use. I've sent notes almost every other week or so to our employees in preparation. I'm very intentional in saying that I don't know what it's going to look like. I say things like, 'We're taking a look at this, but here's the data that we've collected from all of you' or 'Here's the anecdotal feedback that we've been collecting.' We started building asynchronous brainstorming projects with employees globally.

And the questions that we're asking them are things like, 'What do you miss the most about working in offices? What do you think is the best environment for an office? Where have you built really deep connections with your teams?' We're a company of creators and creative folks who love that sense of being around each other. We're also a company of predominantly Gen Z and Millennials—who are not afraid to express their voice—but we have managers who are mostly Gen X-ers. We have to manage the two. Whereas the employees are saying, 'I don't want to show up,' managers are saying, 'I want them here.' Some of our employees are the ones who are writing the articles about employees not wanting to come back to offices.

We have to manage all of that. It's about making sure that we are respecting their voice, giving them room for voice, and listening and responding in a thoughtful way. Then we equip them with what they need. What they need shows up almost every week. We have a task force that went from being our risk task force to now our future of work task force. It's the exact same group, but we have shifted the roles. Our primary responsibility for the first two years was keeping people safe and figuring out what to do with Covid protocols, office security rules, vaccinations, all of that. We have now transformed that work into asking a different set of questions: what do offices look like? What do they offer? How do we embrace people coming back to organization to the organization? How do we make sure that we maintain the same level of clarity, consistency and communication that we tried to have during the pandemic?

So the next piece is communication. I'll give you an example: my next email will go out next week, and it's going out to our US employees. Internationally, it's by country because every country has a very different policy. Here in the US, we're sending out a note and we're sharing with everyone where all the neighborhoods (which are what we're calling teams) are in the offices. Why? Because we have a little over 50% of our employees who have been hired during the pandemic, so there are people who have never even been to our offices who don't know where to sit.

They might know where their own seat is, but they don't know where their team sits or other teams sit. We're going to help them navigate this new world by showing them where all the teams are sitting. Then we're giving people the specifics of how to book rooms. If someone's in a room that you've booked, you can tell them politely, 'Hey, I booked this room. Please don't hang out here all day.' We're providing details about what we're doing for snacks and food. These are the things that make it fun and enjoyable to be in the office, but I want to be clear with people that it's still wonky to be in the office. It's still weird to come in see half of your team here and half of your team is not here, but that is not the end state. We're forming the future state, and we're doing it together. The final point is about empowerment, so that employees feel that they get to shape it and co-create it with their managers.

Research has shown that flexibility is particularly important to women, caregivers, employees of color. Where do you see the intersection of flexibility and inclusion?

Inclusion is about feeling that you have a voice, that you're connected, and that your opinion matters. Having your opinion matter when it comes to flexibility is very important because what flexibility means for you may be very different from what it means for me. I have a father in my group that needs to leave the office early on Wednesdays. For my team, I have dedicated Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays as in-office days. But to be honest, that's starting in May because as part of the ease back, we were only coming in on Tuesdays and Thursdays. I said, 'Let's do that for two months, and then starting in May, when it gets warmer and people are less worried about commuting, let's have everybody come in three days a week.'

Why? Because I want to be around my team and because I want to do work with all of them, and it's our responsibility to create conditions for employees to thrive. If we're not here with them, we can't help them. This is the opportunity to do that. One of my male employees said, 'That's great, but on Wednesdays, I have to pick up my son early from daycare. Can I leave early those days?' Absolutely. Flexibility doesn't mean that you are stuck here on the same schedule. Flexibility simply means that for the team, it's helpful to know that most of us are going to be here, but if you need to leave early on Wednesday, you can. The need for flexibility is often about childcare needs. I have another employee whose babysitter could not work on Tuesdays and Thursdays. For her, we decided that she would come in on Wednesdays until she could secure a full-time babysitter, which will be in a couple of months. We'll revisit then. That's the flexibility I'm offering her. Everyone gets different flexibility.

Some of the younger employees without families are so excited to be there, so they can be there all the hours that they want to. That's their flexibility. I know I live in a neighborhood where if my package is out for 20 minutes, it gets stolen. So I've told my team that if they have packages coming, they can work from home that day. It's okay. The point is that we have to make this work for all of us.

You have to build trust with your individual manager, not with me as the head of the department, because it is your manager's responsibility to ensure that you're able to deliver on your performance. That is something only the two of you can speak about, but it can't be a taboo topic. You can't lie and say you have a doctor's appointment instead of saying that you have to take your kid to a soccer game. Speak your truth—that's flexibility.

Do you have concerns about proximity bias?

Yes, it's a very real bias. We've called it out in our hybrid guide. We created a guide for managers last summer, when we were planning to come back in October. Like many companies, because of Omicron, we stopped. As part of the preparation, we created this hybrid guide, and we are now doing guide version two. We're going to go back to teams and say, 'Hey, it's been six plus months, and here's what we've learned.' In our original guide, we talk about inclusion. We talk about proximity bias. We talk about being mindful of engaging with employees and setting meetings that are inclusive. If you've got a hybrid meeting, what does that look like? How do you define that?

We're also in the process of revamping our performance management process. I joined less than two years ago, during the pandemic. I didn't meet my boss or my team for about a year. I joined on May 11th, and on May 20th, George Floyd was murdered and the entire world went topsy turvy. It was really quite powerful to be in an organization that was going through all of this. We almost lost one of our brands as part of a social media outcry. This was very much my opportunity to center inclusion into everything that we did, but part of centering inclusion into everything that we did was making sure that we had the right systems and processes to begin with, that we could integrate inclusion into.

A lot of my work has been around building the boring but very necessary employee handbooks, codes of conduct, job architecture, job leveling, and performance management. Everybody wanted me to deliver anti-racist training, and I would tell everyone two things: one, it would be irresponsible of me to deliver anti-racist training until we've all come to an agreement that we're racist, so we actually need to do a lot of work to get there. Second, what I actually need to focus on is helping managers have the right capabilities, resources, and tools to deliver their work because employees are telling me that they're not getting any of that from their managers. That's what my focus is, and in order to do that, it's not just about capability building. It's about resource and structure building.

I say all of that because we completed our job architecture initiative of last year, which includes leveling. It's been immensely helpful for our pay equity work, which is also very much deeply embedded into what we do. Performance management is the final piece of this. We are transitioning to a new system, Lattice, and as part of that transition, every communication and every engagement is around ensuring that inclusion is embedded into the performance management guidance steps. It's included in the behavioral norms that we created last year, and it's not called inclusion. It's actually the behavioral norm 'act with empathy.' We have five behavioral norms, which are on our website and embedded into our performance management. They form the questions that managers ask.

As a result, inclusion is not just a nice thing to do. You cannot complete your full performance review or be considered for your full bonus if you have not achieved and spoken to these areas. That's where I'm concerned about it, and the way that we're trying to solve for it is by embedding it into our systems, embedding it into our communications. The way that you bust bias is by calling it out and by acknowledging it. Every one of my team members recognizes that when we're sitting down, we've got to call these out. We just completed merit and promotions, and our calibrations—which to be fair are not as robust as I'd like them to be yet—but our calibration conversations were based in criteria that we're using for these levels. We thought about the year that we had, what they delivered, and where they delivered. We have folks all over the world, and we have to constantly remind ourselves to recalibrate on that with inclusion as a key factor.

You've referred to how the role of managers has changed in the past two years. What ideas do you have for team managers to improve the day-to-day experience for women and people of color?

The most basic is to really listen, to build relationships, and to ask better questions. I say this often, but it's not that complicated. We have spent a long time asking the wrong questions. We ask the question, 'Why is this place not more diverse?' But we don't ask, 'What are the conditions that we've created to keep people out of this place to keep it the same organization?' Managers don't spend enough time sitting down with their team and asking questions like: What are the obstacles to your success? What's holding you up right now? How can I help you reduce those obstacles?

That's not a simple question to be asked. You need to build the trust, and trust is consistency over time. People need to trust that if they share their hangups with you, that something will actually happen. But we don't spend enough time asking. We sit down and have this standard conversation about key milestones and deliverables. We might ask them how they're feeling. But managers may not have processed enough to think that this person who's in front of you may not trust you enough to tell you exactly how they're feeling. So don't ask them how they're feeling. Make it more contextual and ask them specifically what is hanging them up.

What are their challenges? What are their obstacles? What does that look like? And genuinely ask, 'How can I help you overcome them?' Once you've asked these questions, then you actually have to act on them because that's how you build trust. That's the feedback that I tell all managers. It's not that complicated. Certainly, we're looking constantly at representation for teams and other initiatives across the employee lifecycle, but it begins with listening. It begins with asking better questions, and it begins with building trust by actually being responsive to what you hear.

In the book and throughout your career, you've focused a lot on bringing talent into organizations. What are the key things that organizations should be doing and and stop doing in terms of having equitable, inclusive hiring processes?

Well, the first thing that you need to do is actually understand what your hiring process is. To address representation across the entire hiring funnel, you need to see what it looks like from beginning to end to so that you can identify where the gaps are. I have been hiring long enough to know that we lower and raise the hiring bar all the time. But we don't seem to be willing to contextualize who we raise it and lower it for. When you deeply reflect on that, you might see that the last four or five people that you've hired have been white men or white women who came from the same schools and came from the same backgrounds.

Building more inclusive workplaces begins with who you're letting in, who you're inviting in, and who makes you feel comfortable. Reflecting on processes and practices and how they impact outcomes is number one. I'll give you an example. Every company is hiring interns right now, which is what I call the 'friends and family' program. For so long, it's been a practice that excludes real talent. Most organizations are actually really great at hiring junior talent that is racially diverse, even if candidates from underrepresented groups aren't advanced at the same rate.

When you're thinking about your interns, why is your intern class not racially diverse? Well, because you're not really recruiting, you're just matching. When I was at Disney, I went to our senior leadership and said, 'I have a recruitment team that is highly capable of bringing in a racially diverse intern class, but you are keeping them from doing it. You're literally holding them back because out of the 25 slots that we have, you have sent me 22 must-hire referrals.' All they're doing is matching people to the open roles and leaving a tremendous amount of talented, racially diverse talent on the sidelines.

We're spending this money because we're making ourselves feel good. We're spending this money with these organizations that are feeding us racially diverse interns. For us, it was the Emma Bowen Foundation, among others. We were funding them, and they would send us candidates we didn't hire because we had to hire the must-hire referrals. In the end, we had to make a change. Knowing that there were always going to be some must hires, we decided 10% would be allowed to be must hires. The other 90% would go through the entire process. That doesn't mean that leadership couldn't refer people, but they would go through the exact same structure and fair hiring process and everybody else. That year, we increased our diversity numbers by 30% or 40%.

It was so beautiful. My happiest moment was seeing the happy faces of my recruiters, because they were finally allowed to do what I had been measuring them against. Recruiters are practical human beings. They will deliver for you what they get measured on. If they get measured on bringing in diverse talent, they're gonna do everything they can to bring in racially diverse talent. If you're holding them back from doing it, then you're creating conditions for them to not succeed. At Google, everyone would complain about our lack of diversity. Hiring managers don't hire because those decisions are all committee-driven at Google, but I would always remind hiring managers that recruiters are rational human beings.

They know we have a diversity hiring process. They know everything we're doing to bring in diverse talent. They also know that you are not going to make decisions for the racially diverse talent that is going through the pipeline. You're going to hire the white people. So they're going to bring you diverse talent, but they're not going to work nearly half as hard for them because they know that they won't be hired. Instead, they'll focus on the ones that are gonna match up to their KPIs, that match up to their performance, and that match up to their bonus. In reality, they're doing exactly what you want them to do—not based on what you're saying, but based on what you're doing.

You've said it is both important and challenging for managers to embrace discomfort. How would you explain the need for discomfort and how to navigate it to a manager?

The biggest challenge to diversity is fear. We fear what we don't know. We fear saying the wrong thing. We fear not doing enough. We fear messing up. It's overcoming that fear that is really what's going to set us free. It depends on managers and leaders. I'll give you an example. When I joined Vice during the summer of 2020, managers were having a hard time conducting performance conversations with Black people. They would come to me saying, 'I don't know what to say. That person has not delivered on their job, but I don't know how to say it.' And I said, 'Well, how would you say it to a white person?'

I asked them to sit down and tell me what they would say and what their fear was. The fear was getting cancelled, that someone was going to post on social media. What they truly feared, though, is not delivering in the way it should be delivered. They weren't exercising their own courage muscles to do the right thing. Managers have no issue calling me and yelling at me because their bonus checks did not come in on time, for example. One individual had no concerns or worries about yelling at me and screaming at me and telling me everything they thought was wrong with our process.

They were in the wrong and had to apologize afterwards, but can't they have that conversation with their employee in a way that's respectful and constructive? That, frankly, is a manager's responsibility to deliver. I use examples like that to show how you can face your discomfort. Because it is their responsibility. This is their team member. They are responsible for the performance. Managers are responsible for ensuring that they have as much of an opportunity for growth as everybody else on the team. You actually diminish their opportunity for growth by not being willing to give them the feedback that they deserve. Research has shown that Black people and brown people, especially women of color, do not receive the feedback that they need. By the time that they get fired, demoted, or pushed out of an organization, there are years worth of constructive feedback that could have been given. And it is not their fault. It is the manager's.

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