Want to Make the World a Better Place? Start by Fully Embracing DE&I and Wellness in Your Workplace.

The past 18 months have presented unprecedented challenges for all of us: a life-threatening pandemic, social and political dissension and unrest, and escalating racial injustices. People have lost loved ones, jobs, and, for most of us, a familiar way of life—while also taking on a multitude of additional responsibilities and worries.

Yet, when the tragic killings of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, Elijah McClain, and others—all within a close proximity of time—pointed a national spotlight on racial injustice, many well-meaning companies, brands, and their leaders were ill-prepared for the public outcry for them to act. And many of their responses, while well-intentioned, rang hollow.

Now well into 2021, we continue to be faced with challenges—including more and more violent acts of racism in the US and beyond, like the persistence of devastating anti-Asian hate crimes. And the effects of pandemic-induced stress and isolation continue to take their toll on us. As business leaders, we are called to show up differently in this new landscape, to use our companies and resources as change agents for good. 

Our global agency, Firewood, was built on people-centric values based on respect and inclusion that have always guided our actions. That said, the events of 2020 stress-tested every aspect of our business and our decision making. We didn’t do everything perfectly, but we hit upon some strategies that served our employees well. While acknowledging that everyone needs to assess and act upon their own situation, we felt it important to share what worked for us with the hope that it may work for you. One imperative that’s risen to the top of our priorities is to double-down on centering our people by prioritizing well-being and incorporating diversity, equity, and inclusion (DE&I) fully into how we operate. 

Lay your foundation

To effect real change in today’s world, you must be willing to look within to ensure you’re doing everything you can to create a diverse, equitable, and inclusive world—and it begins with creating an inclusive workplace. When you accomplish this and live it every day, an inclusive viewpoint becomes ingrained in the way employees interact with each other, and how—as a company—you interact externally with the world. 

Setting a foundation to operate with a DE&I mindset in all areas of your business is essential, but to get there you need to first take a hard look at your current company culture and work environment. Sounds like a tall order, right? Here are some considerations to get you started.

  • Look in the mirror. Are people of diverse backgrounds and points of view able to be their authentic selves in your workplace? Does your company have a guiding set of principles that everyone understands, agrees with, and adheres to? Do your actions as an individual leader and as an organization exemplify—in all situations—a set of values? If you answered “no” to one or more of these questions then it’s time to sit down and draw up a new game plan that includes a foundational set of guiding principles and values as well as ways to ensure values are shared and reinforced with employees.
  • Understand your reach. None of us operates in a bubble—our actions create ripple effects that either help nurture DE&I so that it grows and flourishes, or serve to undermine it—there’s no neutral middle ground. Your employees, your colleagues, and your clients are all part of wider communities that will be impacted and influenced by the actions you, and your organization, take—or not. And very simply put, there is complicity in silence. So, ask yourself what you want the world to look like and then set out to lead by example. 
  • Create and promote an environment where everyone feels comfortable being themselves. Evaluate your recruiting processes and opportunities for growth within the company to ensure you’re hiring and promoting with a DE&I mindset. Incorporate DE&I practices into your culture and train managers and employees so that everyone is working toward an environment that supports belonging for all people. And provide pathways for people to freely voice their opinions. When people work in an authentically diverse and inclusive environment, fresh ideas, creativity, and innovation will begin to positively influence the workplace and your work product.

Here’s how to get there: If you’re just getting started, consider enlisting the help of a diversity and inclusion consultant. They can evaluate your current environment and recommend adjustments for everything from recruitment practices and onboarding to training and performance management. 

We’re also big fans of employee surveys. We value our employees’ opinions, and ask for them—a lot—by regularly conducting anonymous surveys so that employees feel comfortable freely voicing their viewpoints and concerns. The very first employee survey we took in the early years of our company was an eye-opener, providing us with a roadmap for engaging our people and incorporating their input. And we maintain a virtual suggestion box for anonymous suggestions, ideas, and opinions 24/7. 

Finally, stand behind what you say by donating your time and money to organizations that are in line with your values. For us, a giving program where employees nominate charitable organizations to receive monetary and pro bono hands-on marketing support from our agency makes everyone in the organization feel they have a hand in contributing to our communities and the greater good.

Put your stake in the ground

When things happen, employees need (and most actually want) support and guidance from leadership—and that means you must pick a lane. This can be tough to do when reacting to socially charged events, as there’s always a concern about doing or saying the wrong thing. But when you have a clear point of view and values in place that have been shared with your employees, partners, and clients it’s easier to respond. Coming from a place of authenticity and acting in alignment with your values—even when it means going against prevailing thought or what others are doing—will boost your confidence in making decisions quickly.

  • Lead with empathy. We can’t emphasize this enough: when you listen and truly understand your employees’ experiences, perspectives, and feelings you become a better leader. Empathy not only helps leaders and managers build trust with their employees but also helps them recognize stress and burnout.
  • Communicate. Don’t sit on the sidelines. A delayed response doesn’t serve your employees. If your actions or messaging are organic and authentically aligned with your values, your employees will respect you for it.
  • Take action. If you talk the talk, you really need to walk the walk. And it starts with accountability. The particular event or situation and your guiding principles and values will help make it clear to you how to take action authentically.

Here’s how to get there: Empathy comes naturally to some more so than others, so consider instituting learning opportunities that build empathy across your organization, particularly for managers and leadership. We try to set an example of showing empathy by regularly communicating with employees after difficult events. We directly address the event that occurred, offer genuine comfort and support to our employees, and reaffirm the mental health and wellness benefits and resources available to them. 

And when taking action, think about how your organization can act authentically: how are you uniquely qualified to make an impact? When the events surrounding George Floyd’s tragic murder occurred, we knew we needed to act. One area where we felt we could effect change was in doing our part to help curb systemic racism and inequity in our industry. We made a formal commitment to our employees and a public pledge to do better in ensuring that the voices of Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) are represented at all levels of our company. This commitment has led to action, and we will continue to act to ensure marginalized voices are amplified.

Prioritize well-being

The well-being of our employees is our north star. And we truly believe that physical wellness and mental wellness are closely intertwined. Understanding that the stressors in our everyday lives affect everyone differently is the first step in ensuring you’re taking care of your employees. In American professor, lecturer, and author Brené Brown’s Unlocking Us podcast, she discussed the effects of stress with Dr. David Eagleman, author and neuroscientist at Stanford University. “We’re an unusually social species. We thrive in the company of others,” Dr. Eagleman says. “So what’s happening during lockdown can—at the extreme—plug into what we know […] from studies of solitary confinement in prisons, which is extremely bad for our mental health.” 

Furthermore, Dr. Eagleman says that because we spend a lot of time trying to work out how to navigate and make sense of the world around us during trying times, our brains burn a ton of energy, leaving us feeling worn out. That’s why giving your employees the support they need, particularly during difficult times, is critical—and it’s part of your role and responsibilities as an inclusive leader.

  • Understand that everyone deals with crises differently. Different people from different walks of life view events through different lenses. And most of us are intersectional beings that identify with many different groups. Don’t make assumptions about how individuals may or may not be affected by events—not everyone of a particular group will be affected in the same way. Provide people with the support and resources they need to process their individual experience.
  • Ask employees what they need. Whether in a survey, an all hands Q&A session, or through one-on-one conversations, hearing from your employees will help you create a workplace where they feel valued and respected.
  • Promote wellness. We’ve found that placing a priority on employee wellness creates a space where employees feel that they matter beyond what they can contribute to the company. And as wellness is advocated more, people tend to feel comfortable sharing their stories, fears, and solutions to help others. 

Here’s how to get there: One thing we do when truly troubling events occur is to reach out to our employees to acknowledge the event and—when necessary—condemn the societal ills that are at play. We take the opportunity to reiterate our values and to ask our people what they need. And (if you don’t already) consider offering a benefits package that includes mental and physical wellness resources and additional personal days. This was one of our learnings last summer, and we made enhancements in our overall benefits package to address this need. We’re also beginning to understand the role that employee resource groups (ERGs) can play in building awareness and supporting employees, especially those of underrepresented and historically marginalized groups.

For us, talking openly about mental health and wellness, building awareness, and checking in with employees has become the norm. These kinds of actions can enhance a culture of inclusion, where awareness, understanding, and overall well-being prevail. Ideally, people will begin to open up more, especially when they need support.  

The key: keep growing

Challenges present all of us with opportunities to look ourselves in the mirror, and they keep us honest. Doing everything in your power to instill a DE&I mindset in your workplace and focus on the well-being of your employees is a great start, but as we all know (a little too well by now), the world we live in today will likely keep changing. We will be tested again. And though we don’t presume to have all the answers, we believe that when you’re open to learning while communicating authentically with your employees, you’re not only on the road to overcoming difficult times but also to thriving—no matter what comes your way.

About Lanya Zambrano and Kamron Hack

Lanya Zambrano is co-founder and president at digital marketing agency Firewood, part of the S4 Capital (SFOR.L) group of companies. Kamron Hack is senior director, global DE&I & culture.