Humans First: How to Build an Approach for the Future Based on Accountability, Diversity, and Inclusion

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Lanya Zambrano

Humans First: How to Build an Approach for the Future Based on Accountability, Diversity, and Inclusion
We’re currently in the midst of a very long and overdue national dialogue about systemic racial and economic bias and inequality.

This conversation has become even more urgent as the pandemic continues to highlight disparities among communities: COVID-19-related unemployment and mortality rates are significantly higher for BIPOC Americans, the LGBTQ+ community, and people with disabilities. And the increasing racism and acts of violence toward Asian Americans have only amplified the need to openly discuss these crises and take action. 

We believe employers have an essential role to play in stamping out these systemic structural inequalities and changing industries for the better by fostering diversity, equity, and inclusion (DE&I) internally in a more strategic and holistic way.

Our global agency, Firewood, was built on people-centric values based on respect and inclusion that have always guided our actions. We’ve been partnering with inclusion and diversity consulting firm Forshay since 2019, so when Ad World asked members of the Firewood leadership team to speak at its May 2021 global conference about how companies can incorporate DE&I into their operations, it was only natural that we asked Forshay diversity and inclusion consultant Dr. Jon Shafran to serve as the moderator. We are immensely grateful to Jon for guiding us in this in-depth discussion. Below are some of the key takeaways.

Lanya Zambrano, Firewood co-founder and president, on why a third-party DE&I assessment is important:

Jon Shafran, PhD, Forshay: In the last six months, we’ve seen a huge uptick in the number of organizations reaching out to us at Forshay to do the kind of work that we’ve been partnering with Firewood on these last few years. Lanya, can you share what motivated you to reach out to us for support in your DE&I commitment?

Lanya Zambrano, Firewood Co-founder and President: Part of our value system is listening to our people. And, like every great marketer, we do that through surveys. In 2019 we were growing very, very rapidly, so we sent out an internal diversity and inclusivity survey focused on our values to make sure that as we were growing, we were holding ourselves accountable and living up to what we stand for. One of the outcomes of that survey was that we felt we needed to create an internal DE&I working group that would get together and have honest conversations around what was happening in the organization—a group where everyone’s voice was represented. That was a connection point where we felt it was important to seek an outside perspective to assess and guide us. We reached out to you at Forshay and it was one of the best decisions we’ve made.

Jon:  At Forshay, we’ve found it’s really important to identify those collective blind spots and start to think about this work first by collecting data to get a clear understanding of where your strengths and your areas of growth are. A lot of times, organizations begin this work with a set of assumptions about how equitable or inclusive they are without having the data to confirm or disconfirm those assumptions. So it’s always great to have an outside perspective. And while you folks rightly saw that there were some areas that needed improvement, Firewood had the highest sense of belonging among employees that we’d ever seen. That segues nicely for moving into the topics at hand: how the events of 2020 shined a light on the inequities in our system, the need for employers to fully commit to diversity and inclusion, and the strategies you and your team have enlisted for building DE&I into your organization’s DNA.  

Lanya and the Firewood team on why the collective shared tragedies of 2020, specifically the murder of George Floyd, necessitated action: 

Lanya: After I watched the video of George Floyd’s murder, I felt punched in the gut. I had just witnessed a very public execution and it made me sick to my stomach. I was sad. I was disgusted. And I knew that if I felt that way, our people felt it, too. [My husband and Firewood co-founder] Juan and I felt it was incumbent upon us—as leaders of the company—to address what happened. In silence there’s complicity. And we wanted to make sure that our communication with employees was not only aligned around our values, but that we were extremely clear about our point of view. I think with any communication, transparency is important. But with something like this you’ve got to pick a lane, and our lane was: this is not OK—we condemn acts of racism and marginalization. We also felt it was important to focus on our people, acknowledge our Black Firewoodians, and show our support both internally and externally.

Kamron Hack, Senior Director, Global DE&I and Culture, Firewood: For me, it was really personal. I had a very visceral response to seeing someone who looked like they could be part of my family being killed for no reason at all. But this feeling wasn’t new for me. My paternal grandparents moved the family from Memphis, Tennessee to Compton, California as a direct response to the murder of Emmett Till. These stories are woven into the fabric of the Black American, but this time felt really different for me because of how public this murder was. Working at a company where authenticity is a very lived value, I felt not only compelled to share my feelings, but also very safe in sharing my feelings. So I wrote an email to my boss, the head of HR, about how I thought we should say something to our employees. I also shared my thoughts with Lanya and Juan. Thankfully, they were already on the same page, so we worked together to address the issue and offer support, specifically to our Black employees. 

On how the events of last year altered how companies should approach DE&I work:

Sam Haskin, SVP of Client Services and DE&I Marketing Lead, Firewood:  I think before 2020, DE&I in business was treated like a luxury or extra credit—the urgency behind it wasn’t consistent. It took a number of tragic deaths—George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, Elijah McClain—all happening in such a short period of time that people really couldn’t look away. There was this acknowledgment that this has been part of the cultural conversation since even before Rodney King. But passive disapproval—specifically the passivity—has led to this boiling point where we now need to make up for lost time. And it was a pretty quick conclusion to draw that much of this stems from inequity—economic inequity and inequity in opportunities. And companies are now hearing from employees and consumers in a very, very loud voice that they must participate.  

Kamron: The subsequent expansion of the Black Lives Matter movement—that started in 2013 after Trayvon Martin’s killer was acquitted—and activists in our communities also played a significant role in bringing additional awareness and adding pressure to companies to look within and assess the ways in which they might be contributing to the problems of inequity and exclusion. I’d like to believe that this awakening is leading companies to more fully understand the necessity and the benefit of having a more comprehensive DE&I strategy that is integrated into every part of the business. It’s becoming more and more clear that these efforts can’t solely live within the confines of human resources.

On how companies can approach DE&I holistically longer term:

Lanya: DE&I has to be woven into every fabric of the organization. What happened last year was a war on our society, our social fabric, and our mental health. Having a safe place—an environment where people feel safe being themselves and expressing themselves—is really important. But the biggest challenge for the longer term is making sure our commitment to change remains strong. This isn’t a one-and-done thing. Leaders have to show up and be accountable. We can say this until we’re blue in the face, but accountability is extremely important. At Firewood, we publish our employee demographics, and that transparency helps ensure that changes are happening. We also started working with groups like Hack the Hood on internship programs and shifted the focus of the inaugural class of our four-year S4 Fellowship Program to graduates of historically Black colleges and universities. We don’t have all the answers, but we’re continually building on the things that we’ve started and we remain committed. 

Kamron: We see building a long-term, holistic DE&I strategy as a three-pronged approach. We recruit with an eye toward DE&I, solidify a culture of belonging for all people through training and ensuring opportunities for growth, and then examine what we make and how we make it. Every step along the way we look very closely at areas where unconscious bias or leaning heavily on stereotyping and pigeonholing may have inadvertently crept in to become standard operating procedure. Building a baseline of understanding across the employee population is necessary and can be accomplished through mandatory training on the fundamentals—like unconscious bias and gender dynamics, various forms of discrimination of protected classes, and microaggressions—and supplementing that self-directed learning with special programs that address equity and create a sense of belonging and community within the company. Employee resource groups can create safe spaces for difficult conversations that need to happen. One of our white employees wanted to explore ways for people to be better allies and to foster change through anti-racist activism. She rallied a bunch of coworkers and together they created what is now our anti-racism working group. 

On how DE&I can (and should) influence external work:

Sam: One of our focuses initially was to look closely at what we were doing and how we were doing it, to see if it held up against our values and through this lens of inclusivity. We started by looking at creative—how we represent people in the creative work that we do. And we put together a system for checking ourselves, auditing the work, and writing guidelines—creating a baseline for cultural awareness within the creative team. But we quickly realized that creative is just part of the environment. Creative gets its direction from briefs, briefs come from insights, insights come from data, and data comes from research. And every step along the way assumes that the step before it had it all figured out and did everything perfectly. What we’re seeing is that a lot of steps along the way have the potential for unconscious bias or habitual behavior to creep in. So we’re pretty far down the process of breaking down all of those pieces and asking pointed questions around how we’re doing things. Some of the tools developed internally show you where blind spots are and where you can improve, and can easily be translated into the work you’re doing externally as well.

On how companies can begin infusing DE&I into their organizations:

Kamron: Some people are really comfortable with the status quo and might not really understand the benefits of this work yet, to the extent that they’re willing to engage. So it’s on leaders to recognize this and to make sure that the messaging that we’re putting out there is inclusive enough that we’re reaching people of all levels of understanding. A big misconception is that creating space to include a more diverse set of perspectives means that you’re taking something away from someone else. And that’s just not true. On the contrary, including more perspectives will make you better, and it will make you more innovative and allow your company to grow and to thrive. And that ultimately creates more opportunity for everybody. And then you have the other side of the spectrum—the people who just get it, and they’ve realized the collective error of their ways and they’re eager to rectify it immediately. I do appreciate that energy, but I will continue to beat this drum of the long journey. You need to build the stamina for this, a measured approach, so that the change can be impactful and long lasting. And that means we have to stay open to this ongoing cycle of listening and messaging that this is not zero-sum work. This is about creating a more equitable workplace for everyone.

On the ultimate goal companies should strive for in rooting out inequities within their doors:

Sam: One goal is the recognition that integration of DE&I is a journey, not a destination. There’s no point when you’re done. We’re dealing with decades, if not centuries, of cultural examination to do. And the nature of progress is that there’s always room to evolve—we’re going to continue to learn things as we go deeper and get better. And then the other is that DE&I is not just about hiring or HR. If you bring a bunch of new voices into your company, the idea is to make sure the culture is ready and able to hear what they have to say.

Kamron: Ensure that your DE&I strategy permeates throughout the organization and promotes a culture in which everyone can experience a true sense of belonging—an environment where they feel safe bringing their unique perspectives and authentic selves to the table so they’re not wasting their precious energy hiding pieces of themselves so that they can be accepted by some norm.

Lanya: And listen, truly listen, to your people with empathy. Pick a lane, stick to it, and make changes. You have to be bold. You have to be honest. And you must be inclusive.

Jon: Thanks very much for giving us a little bit of a peek into the tactics you’re using for ensuring DE&I is realized throughout your entire organization. This conversation strongly leads to the conclusion that DE&I is essential in realizing our shared commitment to creating organizations where everyone can thrive equally.

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