Be More is a weekly one-on-one podcast about how everyone can thrive in the new world of work, hosted by Workday’s Patrick Cournoyer. This week: Sheree Atcheson, a diversity, equity, and inclusion leader, on the perils of niceness, and having space to be yourself.
Long gone are the days where diversity, equity, and inclusion are relegated to the category “nice to have.” Even further gone are the days where simply being nice is enough to be progressive.
For Sheree Atcheson, combating a history of exclusionary tactics within the business world requires a similarly direct inverse approach. “Nice is not the same as being anti-racist, anti-sexist, anti-homophobic, and so on and so forth,” Sheree says.
To say Sheree is one of the UK’s most influential women in tech is an understatement. Sheree has won numerous awards for her work in diversity and inclusion, and recently published a book: ”Demanding More.”
Whether writing for Forbes about being honest about exclusion or calling out microaggressions in her day-to-day Zoom calls, Sheree is a bastion for what it means to be truly inclusive in the modern workplace.
People don’t realize the power of one person saying something about what’s actually happening.Sheree Atcheson
If you want to build a diverse workforce where inclusion is meaningful rather than tokenistic, you’re in the right place. Tune in now, check out the key takeaways, or read the transcript below.
- Organizations Embracing Diversity Get Better Results.
Society is not a single homogenous group, and businesses shouldn’t be either. Businesses that want to grow need to embrace diversity and foster inclusive environments. This will lead to a more agile and innovative working environment that will, in turn, lead to exceeding financial targets and achieving better outcomes for employees, customers, partners, and shareholders.
- Diversity Without Inclusion Is Fruitless.
Sheree defines diversity as the representation of different demographics within a workforce. Of particular importance is looking at underrepresented groups in comparison to the majority demographics of an organization. To be inclusive, an organization needs to have policies, environments, and communities in place— among other things—to allow people to thrive.
While diversity without inclusion is fruitless, Sheree believes that only one thing is even more fruitless—measuring diversity and not measuring inclusion. When companies fail to realize that, people leave. Even those that do stay will build up resentment toward the business.
- Inclusion Has to Be Purposeful.
As exclusion and discrimination has been the deliberate course of action for decades, we must also be purposeful and deliberate with inclusion. Sheree firmly believes that people have to stop thinking that inclusion will happen by itself if you have a lot of “nice people in your business.” Being nice isn’t the same thing as being anti-racist or anti-sexist.
Patrick: When I ask people what they love about their environment that they work in, the common theme in their response is when a person can just be themselves at work.
Whether it’s the ability to show their quirkiness, to show their passions outside of work, or just to openly discuss what they believe in, the core theme is that an environment of inclusion is not only expected from employees — it’s absolutely necessary for a business to succeed.
Joining me today is my colleague Sheree Atcheson. Sheree is Peakon’s Global Director of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion. She’s one of the UK’s top-most influential women in tech. She’s won numerous awards for her work with diversity and inclusion and she’s in the process of writing a book which is titled Demanding More. It will help everyone be the change that is needed in creating a more inclusive society and workplace. Sheree, I have been looking forward to this conversation for the past week. Thanks so much for joining me today.
Sheree: Of course, thank you for having me.
Patrick: We have a ton that we can talk about and I think a great place for us to start is understanding a bit around your inspiration. What inspired you to build your career in diversity and inclusion work?
Sheree: I think there’s an important point around I guess me as a person there. I am a woman of colour. You can probably tell by my accent, I am Irish and I was adopted when I was three weeks old from Sri Lanka by an Irish family. I grew up in a space that was very very white. Now people very regularly talk about being the only in their workplace or in leadership rooms but I want people to think about being the only in your entire life. [laughs]
When you go to family events and you’re the only Brown face — with the exception of my brother, who was also adopted. When you see friends et cetera. When you have school photos and you’re the only Brown face in the entire photo; so it was always really easy to spot us. It changes how you are viewed in the world but also how you view the world. Certainly, growing up in Ireland, which is still a privilege for sure, gave me a perspective that most Irish people will obviously not have.
Now, I have a computer science degree and I was a software engineer and I guess I loved being “the only” that much that I decided to make my career in it. Very simply, I just wasn’t okay with how exclusionary the industry was. I wasn’t okay with the fact that there wasn’t very many women around me, very many people of colour, and so on and I wanted to do something about it.
I pivoted in using the skills that I have from being very technically minded and using the principles that you would when you create a software solution to create inclusion strategies because again, we are very much needing to put the same or taking the same problems that people face but put different lenses on them so we can solve the problems. And inclusion and software are very much, are linked in that way. I just simply wanted to leave things better than I found them.
Patrick: That’s amazing. The idea of wanting to leave things better than you found them is definitely an inspiration to drive forward a career in an area that just needs a lot of attention by not only business but just by people and employees in business. This concept of focusing on diversity and inclusion, strategy at businesses, process, programs all of it is everyone’s responsibility at an organisation, and we all have the opportunity to be a part of that. Knowing that you’ve had this inspiration and this desire to help organisations change and to build a better future, what do you think the business benefits are for organisations to have a specific focus on creating a more diverse workforce?
Sheree: I think the reason why this is all incredibly important is because, ultimately, we are rolling out solutions — whether it’s technology-focused, medicine-focused, et cetera — for society. Now society is not one homogeneous group. Society is not one subset of society in itself and, therefore, how could you possibly say that you can make a solution for everyone without having appropriate representation or experiences and perspectives being heard. Now we know that organisations embracing diversity and fostering environments of inclusion have better business benefits. For example, an inclusive organisation is twice as likely to exceed financial targets, three times as likely to be high performing, six times more likely to be agile and innovative, and eight times more likely to achieve better business outcomes.
Now we know the research behind this. We’ve seen it from Deloitte and McKinsey and so on, but the reason that this is happening is because we get improved creativity when we bring different people in addressing one issue or one problem or one solution. We get very different perspectives on what that means and, the point is, when we bring these different people in and they are appropriately listened to — and we’ll talk about what appropriately listening to someone actually means — we get different insights that we simply just will not get [otherwise]. We remove that echo chamber that exists in all of our lives.
People should think about the people that they spend all of their time with. Maybe not right now because we’re not spending time with anyone outside of our ”phone” but in the normal world, what are all of your friends like? Where are they all from? Do they all have similar backgrounds to you? Has that created a view of the world that maybe is quite biased and potentially exclusionary? Now the answer to that is likely yes, myself included because you have to push yourself outside of those bubbles because it gives you insight that you simply won’t have.
Patrick: You talk about this concept of exclusion and I definitely want to come back to that because I think that’s an important point in this idea. You recently wrote an article with Forbes and talked about how embracing inclusion means that we need to understand exclusion, and to be honest with ourselves around the concept of exclusion. But let’s get to that in just a minute.
So, we’re talking about diversity and inclusion. I think the two terms, or the two words, are both extremely powerful but I also think that there’s a bit of a challenge sometimes of understanding what the difference is, if there is a difference, or how they work together, and you’ve been really excellent about explaining this in a very concise way. Could you just give your perspective on… I might not say the difference between diversity and inclusion, but how the two work together?
Sheree: Yes, absolutely. I think it’s really important for people to understand as well what it means to them because very often diversity and inclusion will mean so many things to different people but your organisation should certainly have a consistent way of talking about this that brings together those different kinds of flavours. Now, for me, diversity is very much about the representation you have from different demographics looking specifically at underrepresented groups in comparison to the majority demographics that you have in your organisation.
Inclusion is very much about: do you have processes, policies, environments, communities, et cetera, in place that allow those people to thrive? You can’t have one without the other. Now, I know I say this all the time and people are sick of hearing me say it but diversity without inclusion is fruitless but what is even more fruitless is measuring diversity and not measuring inclusion. Now, for me, this is the reason why I came to Peakon because I’m incredibly strict with that when it comes to any strategy that I make that it’s not good enough to, for example, measure your demographics or talk about the great representation you maybe have in your demographic data.
You also have to understand how those people are getting on in your business. Are they being promoted fairly? Do they see hiring as an equitable process? Do they feel like they can bring their whole selves to work? And if they can’t, what are you doing about it? The two things work hand in hand. You can’t have one without the other, otherwise you’re not really doing this work in the way it should be done.
Patrick: That’s a great concise way of helping people understand how diversity and inclusion work together but as you said the importance of understanding both and measuring both. I like this focus when we talk about inclusion around environment and creating this… or striving to create an environment where people can bring their full selves to work. As I was mentioning before, ultimately, that’s people feel really good when they can just be themselves. They’re not worried about having to put on a facade or act a certain way, speak a certain way, share thoughts in a certain way. We all know that just feels good.
What do you think happens when an organisation doesn’t focus on inclusion? I think a lot of organisations are focusing quite a bit on diversity, but to your point, maybe are not focusing so much on inclusion or measuring if their strategy or their initiatives around inclusion are working. What happens when inclusion ends up not being a focus at a business?
Sheree: People leave. [chuckles] People do not want to stay in an organisation that they don’t feel — like you’ve mentioned — that you can be yourself, or that you can bring the parts to work about yourself that are important to you. People don’t want to work there now, people don’t want to work somewhere where they feel like I will reach a barrier before I’ve even become a manager. Now, what’s important in that is, is also remembering the intersectionality of inclusion here. For some people, there are glass ceilings, but for other people that are cement rooms. Now, you have to absolutely understand that. You have to absolutely.
Again, I know I talk about data all the time, but your data is so important here. Taking, for example, that diversity data, and putting it across your promotion processes, your probation processes, your grievance process, and actually understanding that from an inclusion perspective, the two things are connected. When you don’t do that, what you see is people leaving, what you also see is people from underrepresented backgrounds coming into your business thinking that it’s going to be great because they see your diversity stats. They come in, they have a really poor experience, engagement goes down, they are disengaged, they’re unhappy, they’re unfulfilled and undervalued.
They either stay there and continue to resent because they’re not feeling like anything’s changing for them, or they leave. Either of those scenarios are obviously very, very bad. [chuckles] We need to do both. You can’t do one without the other. We just shared our first-ever DNI report for Peakon yesterday, which I was super excited to get out. We’ve shared our data, we know we don’t have the best demographic representation at Peakon. But we’re sharing that.
We’re also sharing our inclusion data where we can because we are just over 250 people where we can protect employee and confidentiality but still sharing what we can around the different perspectives of what it means to work at Peakon with a view that embeds accountability, not just internally, but externally. Actually using those inclusion scores to measure our progress over the next 15 months, whilst we embed our data in different ways too so we can set aspirational targets and so on. The two things work hand in hand. You can’t measure one without the other. If you are doing that, again, you’re just not doing this in the right way.
Patrick: In this article that you just wrote with Forbes — it very much resonated. I obviously just read it a couple of days ago when you released it. It’s so spot on talking about this idea of exclusion or really being honest, not only with ourselves, but organisations being honest with themselves about exclusion. Can you tell us a bit about that and recap your thoughts on that, because I think that is very important for people to hear around how to truly have a meaningful and impactful inclusion strategy we have to understand exclusion.
Sheree: I guess the context around that article; so I try to write for Forbes every month or so, but I woke up and I was just really frustrated. I was really frustrated that I kept seeing people posting things around running unconscious bias workshops, or allyship training, et cetera, but never actually talking about why we need those things or talking about unconscious bias as opposed to just bias, or accidental racism which is just racism! [laughs]
The problem I have with that is it takes ownership off of humans, it takes ownership off of the fact that we have gotten into the position where people in the roles like I am in, and other people, are having to do these different measures to rework and demolish the things that people have done. People have caused us to get to the position that we are in now.
What’s really important here is exclusion and discrimination for decades and decades and decades has been purposeful and deliberately executed. Therefore, our inclusion must be purposeful and deliberately executed to counteract that. You cannot just think that inclusion will just happen because you have lots of nice people in your business. Nice is not the same as being anti-racist, anti-sexist, anti-homophobic, and so on and so forth.
My point is any of those trainings that I run — and I run bias trainings, I run allyship trainings and privilege awareness, and so on — but at the start of every session, and threaded throughout it, are stats and painting the picture of how we have gotten into this position.
How homeowners that are Black in America are treated statistically different, how you can still be killed for being a member of the LGBT+ community in lots of different countries. How London, for example, doesn’t have accessible train stations for everyone which means disabled people cannot travel in the way I can just get on a train and go where I want. And that’s not okay.
If we don’t provide that education and awareness, then what we’re really doing is taking a gaping wound and putting a sticky plaster on it. I don’t play that game.
Patrick: It’s a great article for those listeners. Take a look at the Forbes article because it’s a very good read. As you said, people are the centre of all of this. All of us need to really think about how we are, who we are, how we present ourselves. It’s all of us making a specific conscious effort to get better at this. You mentioned this concept of racism and anti-racism. That’s a very important topic right now. Obviously, there’s quite a few movements that societies have been experiencing — especially in the United States right now, there’s quite a bit going on.
How can organisations — and this is maybe something that has been a bit of a maybe avoided. It can be a tough topic to talk about, especially for businesses. This concept of embracing anti-racism, the word racism in some way, it’s a heavy word. People are scared of it. Businesses can also be fearful of saying the right thing, doing the right thing in this area. How do you suggest businesses go about starting to embrace and be comfortable with talking about anti-racism?
Sheree: I think, firstly, that businesses are uncomfortable with racism for the most part because most people in senior leadership are white. It is a challenge. Because it makes you step back and actually not view your whiteness as default, because it is in the world, in leadership positions. In my level and above, whiteness is a default. Whiteness, when we see it on TV represented in the best way, on books, and in the media, when we consume that, it’s almost like it’s not viewed as anything because it’s just always there.
With racism, you have to confront: that means that you have a huge amount of privilege. Now, people get very uncomfortable when we talk about privilege because it means shining a light on something that means that you have had it easier. Now that does not mean that your life has been easy, it just very simply means your skin colour hasn’t been something that’s made it more difficult.
Now, what I suggest to businesses is to really, and genuinely understand the history. I think it’s really important that people understand the history of racism and the different bits and pieces that I’ve touched on because it’s very easy to think that racism is just, for example, saying like the N-word or saying a racial slur, or actively saying, ”Oh, I’m not hiring that person, because they’re Black.” Yes, those are obviously racist things to do, but it’s much more nuanced than that now as well.
We’ve seen that racism is becoming more subtle and overt, but that doesn’t mean that it’s not still racism. What I think is important to get to the stage of understanding how, for example, racism can be very subtle nowadays, is understanding the sheer brutality of it. Not even that long ago, there are people’s grandparents that have witnessed some intense racism, and it’s still going on in the world. We can see what’s happening in the world every day on the news.
What I think is important is when you get that education and awareness, is really genuinely understanding how you personally firstly can make a difference in that space. What is it that you can do, as for example, maybe a white person, as a non-Black person, and so on, to really make a difference with the power or privilege that you do have and then utilising your business — if you’re able to do that — for good. I think that’s a really important point here.
We have seen that so many organisations put their weight behind anti-racism in the past six months-ish. That has meant that we’re seeing it become more and more mainstream, which is what we need. We need people not just in senior leadership positions, like us, to be talking about this. We need your families to talk about it. We need like my dad back home who’s 70 to talk about this. Because again, the point even is, people think they’re not racist because they have maybe adopted Brown children, or they don’t say the N-word, and that’s simply not the case. I can be racist against Black people and I have to make sure that the things that I do, I’m actively being anti-racist, that I’m actively supporting those different communities, doing what I can in the roles that I’m in, and also personally to help people from those different communities — if they want that help.
Patrick: That is a very helpful perspective for… not just businesses, but just for all of us to truly think about that. There was a topic that you brought up at the start of the conversation that I do want to come back to, which is around appropriate listening. What that means, and how organisations can appropriately listen to their employees, but the groups within their teams. Our organisations and the people in our organisations make up the fabric of our culture. Empowering that voice — it’s so meaningful, but it’s also needed and quite frankly, it’s expected for employees to be able to have their voice heard. Talk to us a bit around appropriately listening and empowering employee’s voice in organisations.
Sheree: I talk about this quite a lot because I think it’s really important when you talk about diversity on one side, and inclusion on the other side, versus diversity and inclusion as one thing. How I see appropriately listening versus facetious listening, is you can bring all the different kinds of people from all different backgrounds into your business as much as you want to. However, if those people even sit at the leadership table, and they are not listened to, or somebody says something, it goes in one ear and out the other, they’re not at the right decision-making tables, then what was the purpose? There was no purpose other than to tokenise people.
Now, appropriately listening versus facetiously listening means that you are actively spending the time hearing what that person is saying. You are not listening just to wait for your turn to speak. You’re actively listening, digesting, taking the time to analyse what the person is saying, and not just waiting for your turn to give a rebuttal on what was previously said. Because that’s not inclusive. Because what you’re actively doing is saying, ”I’m not listening, I don’t care, I want to speak.”
The difference in that is that when you do properly and appropriately listen, you get all the benefits I mentioned at the start. You get those different perspectives, you get those insights, and you get those challenges that we need. What I suggest that people do is: intelligent listening is incredibly important here and doing that at scale is incredibly important for all of the business. If we’re talking about the entire business, you need it too, you need a solution like Peakon that allows you to do that because [laughs] it’s obviously unrealistic to be able to do that face-to-face all of the time.
Now, when we’re talking about leadership meetings, for example, and senior leadership meetings, what’s really important here is that this is talked about amongst that group that at the start of the sessions or at the start of every meeting, that the facilitator makes a point of saying that we all need to properly listen to each other, that we need to give each other the space and time to answer and then, as well, the people who are privileged in that room — which is likely everyone because being in leadership is one of the biggest privileges you can have — is that when you see that someone isn’t being listened to, that you actually call it out or that you ask them again, ”I’m interested in what you’re saying, can you please say that again, because I know someone might have missed it?” And using that as a way to really shift that narrative.
People I don’t think realise the power that one other person saying something about what’s happening can have. People don’t realise that me saying, ”Well, actually, why are you talking to that person in that way?”, and I do it all the time, it probably makes people really uncomfortable, but I’m okay with that [chuckles] because I have the privilege to do so. I don’t have, I guess, any worries as a senior leader, around what would happen to me if I speak up.
And that’s certainly encouraged amongst all of us at Peakon, but in other businesses, maybe it’s not and I think that’s what privileged leaders need to be the person to say, ”Well, actually, Sheree said that point first, let’s hear her perspective,” or ”Well, you interrupted that person and I’d like to hear what they’re saying.” I think it’s really important to understand here the scalable solutions alongside the personal interventions that we can all do.
Patrick: I join you in this passion of creating a world where listening is not just waiting for your turn to speak. I think that is articulated incredibly well and I think we all need to think about that because that is not what active listening is, that’s not what appropriate listening is, and that is an inspirational way of looking at how we can just all get better at truly appropriately listening. Through our organisations, just in one-on-one conversations with people; it’s not about waiting for your turn to speak. I really liked that a lot.
Sheree, we could talk for hours about this, but we do have to wrap up the episode. First, I just want to thank you for sharing your passion with the world and with the audience; for sharing with us your journey and what inspired you to originally get into the work with diversity and inclusion. Thank you for providing some tangible perspectives, not only for organisations but just for people and the listeners in general. Honestly, just thanks for being you. I’ve enjoyed the journey that we’ve started on. I appreciate you taking the time to join the conversation today and thank you for just being an inspiration to all of us.
Sheree: Of course, thank you so much for having me, it’s been great.