Repeatedly, we hear the terms diversity and inclusion (D&I) thrown around within the context of initiatives to be undertaken within organizations to improve work culture and client service. Nevertheless, herein lies the problem: initiatives are only meant to be short-term and D&I requires far more than a short-term fix.
In this episode of Diversonomics, our hosts Roberto Aburto and Cindy Kou have a very insightful discussion with former in-house counsel turned chief legal officer, Naveen Mehta. Together, they delve into the common pitfalls organizations face when trying to prioritize diversity and inclusion in the workplace, and new ways in which employers can think of and approach D&I for long-term, sustainable change.
"We'll do the lunch and learn. Everybody's in unconscious bias training. We use Likert-style surveys... God forbid, ethnic lunches! Diverse hiring panels, hiring quotas... All of the research tells us that those aren't effective ways in which we bring inclusion, belonging and very importantly, something we don't talk enough about in this space—safety, into the equation."
— Naveen Mehta, Chief Legal Officer, MESH/diversity
Cindy: Hi everyone. This is Cindy Kou, your co-host coming from Toronto. I'm coming to you from the traditional territory of many Nations, including the Mississaugas of the Credit, the Anishnabeg, the Chippewa, the Haudenosaunee and the Wendat peoples and which is now home to many diverse First Nations, Inuit and Métis peoples. I also acknowledge that Toronto is covered by Treaty 13 with the Mississaugas of the Credit.
Roberto: Hi and Roberto Aburto here coming to you from Gowling's Ottawa office. I'd like to recognize that Ottawa is located on unceded territory of the Algonquin Anishinaabe Nation. We extend our respect to all First Nations, Inuit and Métis people for their valuable past and present contributions to this land.
Cindy: Welcome back or welcome to Diversonomics and our final episode of Season 5. In this season we featured prominent Indigenous and Black guests and we're sharing with you today an episode that was actually recorded in early 2020, before the pandemic. We'll call these the 'Before Times'. Before the murder of George Floyd. Before the death of Regis Korchinski-Paquet. Before the very many reminders we had this year of the violence that Indigenous people in Canada face. A lot has happened since the recording of this original episode, eh Roberto?
Roberto: Yeah, and we wanted to pause to make sure that it wasn't necessarily released in a way that we considered whether to release or not. But one of the reasons we really wanted to share this episode with Naveen Mehta, the CLO at MESH/Diversity, which is a diversity and inclusion consultancy using tech and data to drive organizational change and we'll properly introduce Naveen in the episode. He's a prolific D&I speaker and the episode looks at how organizations can move the needle on diversity and inclusion. So obviously not something that's become any less important in 2020.
Cindy: For sure and we touched base with Naveen before airing this quote/unquote 'Before Times' episode and he actually had an amazing update. From what he's seen the legal profession and corporate Canada have undergone a tremendous shift in mindset since the events of this summer and similar to the shifts in mindset from pro-EDI to anti-racism to anti-oppression that we talked about a bit with Charlene. Naveen says he's also seen a monumental shift in the openness and transparency and thinking around anti-oppression work and how to drive workplace culture forward. So, we're really looking forward to having him back in our 2021 Season to tell us, in detail, about some of the shift that he's seen.
Roberto: So we're still bringing you the original recording because, again, that original content still resonates. So I think the need for this discussion is actually amplified.
Cindy: So when we were looking back at this 'Before Times' episode we thought, "Wow, there's a number of links that we can make so directly from the conversations that we were lucky to have with Brad and Alyssa and Charlene this year. So, I'll just share one that really resonated with me. It really resonated with me that Naveen spends part of this podcast talking about this concept of psychological safety, and psychological safety at work, because we've talked a lot this season about how people show up in work spaces, how to make more space for people to show up in work spaces and really thrive and bring their full selves to work, and all the education that needs to go on around that. So I really kept this concept of psychological safety at work in my mind as we read and listen and learn more and think about how fundamental that piece is to enabling more broad profession to come into the workplace and really thrive. What about you, Roberto?
Roberto: Yeah, no, I think it's a critical concept and Naveen's analysis is, all you'll see, is excellent. It's an area where, I had a lot of conversations with folks who say how do we improve diversity and inclusion at our firm? How do we get more Black lawyers, more Indigenous lawyers? The idea of psychological safety, it talks about and it's sort of puts into your mind, the need to be proactive – to come out and reach out to people and try to create the psychologically safe environment. You've got to meet people half way. So attending Black History Month's event, becoming more educated. Becoming more educated about National Indigenous day and the history of indigenous peoples. The fact that folks are interested in this and learning more about this and going into this space and listening to folks, going into space when invited and appropriate, it really is a basic fundamental principle for inclusion for people to feel included and I'm always struggling and learning about how to improve psychological safety because there's so many different lenses to look at and whether, again, for Black folk or Indigenous folk or people with disabilities; there's different lenses to look at it and there's always more to learn. It's certainly a topic that resonates.
Cindy: For sure and I think that ties so well into another core concept that Naveen talks about which is courage because, you know, showing up to these Black History Month events, or these CPDs and doing reading on the side, I think that's really become table stakes in really moving the needle to create a more inclusive profession and a more inclusive society. So, I really liked the concept that Naveen talked about, about courage, because I think that ties a lot back into gems that Brad and Alyssa and Charlene have each shared about how to push past that discomfort.
Roberto: Yeah, I certainly learned a lot this season and certainly looking forward to learning more in Season 6.
Cindy: Me too. We hope that that's been the case for our listeners as well. So with that we look forward to having Naveen back in the next Season to tell us about this shift that he's experienced but in the meantime we hope you've enjoyed this Season so far and we'll let you get onto this Season Finale.
Roberto: And just one more point. I just want to thank Rachael Reid, who's been our producer for a number of years, for all of her work. Rachael's moved on to new horizons and we wish her all the best. We also welcome Joyanne Hyman on as our new producer. We're looking so forward to working with Joyanne. I also want to say a big thanks to Cindy. This year was a tough one and Season 5, coming together, she won't ever take credit for it but she should. Her push and drive, making sure that we ... the ... of Season 5 and keep Diversonomics going as an annual podcast. I do want to send a big heartfelt thanks to Cindy as well.
Cindy: That's super sweet of you, Roberto, and this absolutely was a team effort.
Roberto: Great, and with that, onto Naveen for the Season Finale.
Cindy: We hope you've all enjoyed the Season so far and now let's move onto the Season Finale from the 'Before Times'.
You are listening to "Diversonomics", a Gowling WLG podcast
Roberto: Hello everyone. Welcome to Season 5 of Diversonomics. The podcast about diversity and inclusion from Gowling WLG. I'm your co-host, Roberto Aburto, from Gowling WLG's Ottawa office.
Cindy: And I'm your co-host, Cindy Kou, in our sunny Toronto office. How are you doing today, Roberto?
Roberto: Fantastic. Thanks for asking. We've got a great episode lined up today, don't we, Cindy?
Cindy: We most certainly do. I am excited to introduce our special guest. But first a special shout-out to anyone tuning in for the first time today. Welcome and a friendly reminder that our previous four seasons can be found at gowlingwlg.com/diversonomics. Ontario lawyers, you can get your EDI credits just for listening.
Roberto: That's what makes us the most popular podcast on December 31 every year so keep that trend alive and well. So just starting with a recap from some episodes from last season. In Season 4 we spoke with Dr. Sarah Saska, co-founder and CEO of Feminuity and Adrian Ishak, Senior Corporate Counsel, Global Labour and Employment at Salesforce, about challenges to and advice for moving the dial on equity, diversity and inclusion. We actually haven't solved all of those issues yet so we're going to continue on the same theme and I'm pleased to introduce our guest today, Naveen Mehta. Many of our listeners will already be familiar with Naveen as a prolific D&I speaker and trainer in the legal communities. So, welcome, Naveen.
Naveen: It's a pleasure to be here. Thanks, Roberto and Cindy.
Roberto: Great, and Naveen will you indulge us with a brief introduction of your impressive background and then we'll hand it off to you to fill in all the details we've missed.
Naveen: You're very kind. You've been talking to my mom again. I'm Chief Legal Officer, currently, at MESH/Diversity. What we do is we are Canada's largest ever inclusion firm and we do a tremendous amount of work in the legal community and with companies of all sizes. Prior to that I spent 20 years as an in-house lawyer with a large Canadian union. First as a litigator and then as their general counsel. In that position I also had the additional role as Director of Human Rights, Equity and Diversity. So I was able to really dig deep into issues that affected immigrants, migrant workers, visible minorities, the LGBT2Q community and people from all equity seeking groups.
Roberto: Awesome. Well, let's start at the beginning or for what many organizations is the formal beginning of a commitment to moving the needle on diversity and inclusion. We hear a lot about organizations creating a diversity initiative as one of the first steps to improving diversity and inclusion. What do you think about framing diversity and inclusion as an initiative in the workplace? What, if anything, do organizations need to be aware of with that approach?
Naveen: That's a great question, Roberto. I think the way in which we, as a profession, look at diversity and inclusion, sort of underlying set questions. We view it as a fundamental soft skill as opposed to something that is a real pillar to how our organizations operate. Initiative, by definition, is a short-term endeavour that organizations can be involved in, but it's finite. A program, however, is something that's longer term. It's made up of a number of initiatives and it has a longer term goal at its end. So when I look at the work that we do, for instance at MESH or that I've done over my career, and that firms and organizations who are fully engaged in diversity and inclusion, they have programs. They have programs that work for the long term.
Cindy: Thanks, Naveen. So in your experience what would you say are the top three barriers to moving the needle on diversity and inclusion within an organization?
Naveen: Only three?
Cindy: Your top three, please.
Naveen: So, I think the fundamental issue that we have in our profession is the way in which we approach diversity and inclusion. We originally looked at diversity being the fundamental aim of what organizations wanted to do. To send a realization that we had in the profession as across the corporate world was that no, no, we actually want inclusion. Because if we have just a diverse workforce that isn't included, we're really probably going to have a fundamentally disgruntled workforce that isn't truly included. But even after 20 years of research and work towards diversity and inclusion, in the legal profession and beyond, we've only seen modest gain. There's a number of reasons for that, so my top three would be: our planning, our approach and our reliance on this idea of an echo chamber. Right? What a lot of people do in the legal profession is we rely on people who are passionate and confident about diversity and inclusion and their end goals. The dilemma is that passion alone won't get us there. Right? I wouldn't get my car fixed by someone watching YouTube videos and was passionate about vehicles. No one would hire a lawyer who's watching episodes of Matlock and doesn't have a fundamental expertise in what they do. Right? That's the fundamental problem I think that underlies what we do. Because we also rely on committees to make decisions, time and time again, and particularly in the legal profession where we are uber busy, having someone do diversity and inclusion off the side of their desk or part-time, really isn't the most effective way to do it. If we take it seriously, we can absolutely ensure that we have those resources behind them.
So, over the last decade organizations from across all sectors launched a diversity and inclusion program. The problem with most of those programs is that many were introduced for compliance purposes, with a lot of passion and a lot of enthusiasm, and don't get me wrong, a lot of good intentions. The dilemma is that over time too many have resulted in what I call diversity trade. It's a very siloed approach, time limited projects, and a dearth of real expertise that just isn't there. Programs aren't well-designed and then senior leaders are often uninterested in shepherding change across their work force. So, sadly the trajectory and fallout of those kinds of engagements are all too often predictable because they rely on the same old failed, inappropriate, misapplied best practices. I think the list of things that we do is quite expansive. We'll do the lunch and learn. Everybody's in unconscious bias training. We use Likert style surveys. God forbid, ethnic lunches. Diverse hiring panels, hiring quotas. All of the research tells us that those aren't effective ways in which we bring inclusion, belonging and very importantly, something we don't talk enough about in this space, safety, into the equation.
Roberto: I really appreciate you bringing the term safety into that discussion. Can you maybe elaborate a little bit on what you mean on that point?
Naveen: Sure, absolutely. So, the way in which we look at it and the research tells us, everyone's familiar with Maslow's Hierarchy. There's also a hierarchy of organizational motivations. What a lot of firms and organizations will do is they will look at engagement. Which we understand is, through the research, is the top end of the pyramid. Engagement drivers are those type of drivers where you have loyalty, passion, innovation, and when you do those engagement type surveys and people aren't engaged, you wonder why. Then we start to ask questions but we're not asking the right questions. The first layer of that sort of five layer pyramid, if you can imagine, is basic survival needs. Employment, money, money for food, shelter and so forth. When you have that covered, which likely many of us do, you deal with safety needs. You need a stable and predictable environment. So you need a work place culture that is experienced as both predictable and conducive to the psychological safety of its personnel. When we get all the way to engagement, which is between safety and engagement is belonging, inclusion drivers. If we measure engagement and we don't understand that there's psychological safety needs in a work place we totally missed the boat.
Roberto: Yeah. No, I appreciate that point. I think it really goes to the need for outreach and law firms to be proactive, but while I appreciate that comprehensive review of the barriers, but to put the flip side on can you tell us about an environment or an organization where you saw an equity, diversity and inclusion initiative thrive?
Naveen: Sure, absolutely. So, the work that we do is very systematized and I think that we're engaging something as important, as building that healthy workplace culture, you have to systematized. We call this a stage 5 proactive inclusion culture. That's a culture where you have fundamental inclusion. Diversity and inclusion is embedded into the organizational vision, values and day to day operations. Inclusion systematized, you're looking at metrics, and not just any metrics. We're not just counting heads. We're not just looking at the qualitative through engagement surveys. We're looking at fundamental metrics that measure behaviours. Coaching, mentoring and we're monitoring and managing to mitigate for power dynamics on a proactive basis. Power dynamics is something that we rarely discuss when we discuss diversity and inclusion. Really understanding how what happens outside our doors around race, gender, homophobia, how that actually affects us in our day to day behaviours with our peers and how we make decisions. That same type of environment, what we call the stage 5 proactive inclusion environment, it's data driven. It's proactive with culture trend metrics using it to drive engagement, culture retention and productivity. The last thing I'll add is that there is full phase diversity and inclusion programming going on. It's not this idea of a one and done approach to engaging diversity and inclusion. We do this weird, weird thing as adults. In school we do grade 1, grade 2, grade 3. We spent a certain amount of time and we watch for repeat, we're tested upon material so we actually learn it. We get to university were people lecture at us, and it's up to us to spend the time, but we do spend the time to actually learn. We actually change behaviours along the way. As adults we stop with the notion that we need to actually be taught and we need to actually learn. Not just understand. So what we do is we do the 2 hour workshop and we're good to go. We've gotten rid of all the racism, sexism, homophobia, it's all gone from our system through someone's magical voice giving us information. What we mistake as adults is what children don't mistake. This idea that we might understand something in the moment but from a psychological perspective we actually haven't learned it. It hasn't gone into our short term memory and eventually into our long term memory. It's when it goes into our long term memory that we're actually able to operate and change our behaviours in a way that's more inclusive.
Cindy: Naveen, I think you're last answer was so good that it answered my next question so maybe I can ask you something, a fall out question, on what you just said.
Cindy: So you mentioned that part of the stage 5 proactive inclusion environment has metrics for behaviours, including measuring and mitigating power dynamics.
Cindy: Can you tell us a bit more about how that can be measured and examples of mitigation stuff?
Naveen: What we do is, inclusion is a commodity. It's not just this fluffy idea of the way in which I feel in an environment. It is about how we feel because emotions are fundamental drivers for behaviour. The way in which emotions drive behaviours is fundamentally important to the way in which we should be doing diversity and inclusion work. When we try to engage our behaviours we look at them through a lens of inclusion. That lens has, the way in which we do it, there's 36 fundamental pieces. Everything from empathy to compassion to civility, they're really important in our profession, civility, but breaking those down we can actually measure people's behaviours based on their intent and their impact. The way in which we start to mitigate those negative aspects of those behaviours is we first start to measure our intent. Because no matter what happens, if I were to do a survey for instance, and you were to ask me if I like working with women, absolutely I do. Because my intent is that I want to be this equitable person and I believe myself to be good. So I will give myself a 10 out of 10. Of course I want to work with woman. The fundamental dilemma with that approach is that it doesn't look at our impact. So what we do is first we measure intent and then we measure impact. The fundamental impact is what our actual behaviours are. So in our work the way in which we mitigate that is we bridge the gap between our intent and our impact. Because I think an approach to diversity and inclusion that really hasn't worked to mitigate behavioural change is an adversarial one. Because all the research tells me that when I feel triggered, when I feel like I'm under attack, when I feel like there's nothing I can say in this room that makes me right, which unfortunately some diversity and inclusion approaches make people feel, no one consciously and unconsciously can engage that material. Because our brains are designed from an evolutionary perspective to ensure that we don't engage that material. So that mitigation piece is so important in bridging that gap between intent and impact.
Roberto: Great. We really appreciate that you've had an opportunity to work with many organizations from different sizes, different sectors, what are some of the common obstacles or points of resistance you see organizations face when it comes to fostering more equitable diverse and inclusive work cultures?
Naveen: It goes back to my earlier comments. I'll build on those. Workplaces have a tendency to do what's easy. If we're going to change how people behave in the workplace, not their personalities, personalities are very static, but we're going to change how they behave in the workplace and how they treat each other and how they make decisions. We do that by way of heavy lifting over time. Organizations often want to ensure that they have websites that are diverse. There will always be a page that says what they do around diversity and you can do a very quick analysis as to who's actually doing something. When this sort of fundamental truth is pointed out organizations do one of two things. They engage and embrace or they go the other way and look at themselves as being fundamentally comfortable with a very service level approach to diversity and inclusion. That unfortunately seems to be more the norm. Decisions aren't made based on metrics, based on science and based on data. They're based on intuition because we all somehow have it figured out around diversity and inclusion because we, as human beings, should know how we feel. And that doesn't cut it when you're dealing with the way in which other individuals are actually experiencing your culture.
Cindy: So on that note, Naveen, I'm curious what advice you have for management of organizations to challenge those who aren't ready to engage and embrace some of the hard work that is required to shift the culture.
Naveen: I think for management, what they have to do prior to doing that kind of as a starting point, is recognize a couple of things. Recognize what I said earlier is that confidence and passion are a dangerous combination around diversity and inclusion if they aren't tempered with both humility and objectivity. It's about really looking in the mirror to truly understand who you are as an organization. I would suggest that there's three questions that management must ask of itself and of their organization before they engage in any diversity and inclusion program. The first would be what kind of organization are you? Really? Where is your starting point? What do you actually look like? You will know this by actually having metrics. Not in qualitative sense of things. Not through simply just having focus groups or surveys but really digging down deep, utilizing the tools out there and the science, to ensure that you have a clear understanding of what you're culture looks like. Number two, what do you really want to accomplish? Where do you want to end up and what's your vision? Often, and I've been in situations where firms with no diversity and inclusion programming have asked me something to the effect of, "Can we fly down to Washington in 2 weeks because we have a big RFP, and this company wants us to say something around diversity and inclusion, so can you come down?", and I obviously wouldn't do, that but in their approach to the diversity and inclusion was simply, or only, to ensure that it's a business driver. That in and of itself is problematic. It is important though as a business driver because all of the research out there tells us that an inclusive organization is one that engages people. It's one that is better for the bottom line and it's one that ensures that all those complexities of day to day decisions are met with responses that are fundamentally equitable. The third piece is how do you plan to get there? What are your steps? Why have you chosen these steps and what reason do you believe that they're going to work? If it's all based on intuition and not on science then we have a fundamental problem.
Cindy: Right. That's great and I'm curious what your advice would be for individuals who are not in that space who want to challenge some of the barriers to moving the needle.
Naveen: We're at a cool space in time and I think it's getting better. At a glacial speed, unfortunately, but it's getting better. Where you can be a first year associate and you can go to the managing partner or one of the lawyers you work with and say, "What is our diversity and inclusion strategy? What are we actually doing?", and bring those resources to those partners by saying, "I know this requires courage." I answered a similar question recently on a panel. But it requires courage. It's not easy. If you really want to drive that change you have to speak up. Change doesn't happen through silence. So ensuring that, one, you're educated on what's happening out there, what actually works, and then bringing that to your firm. We've had several clients where someone who is lower on the ladder has brought this to their employer. In today's day and age you can actually do that and most law firms are not going to throw you out on your ear as a result. Most law firms are going to say, "Hey. This makes a lot of sense. From a business perspective, from the workplace that I want to work in and let's investigate further." But it requires courage.
Roberto: I think we could go on all day. I really appreciate your passion but I guess we'll leave it with one more question. What tips or advice do you have to share with champions of equity, diversity and inclusion who may be feeling discouraged by the pace of change around them?
Naveen: Push, push, push. The fundamental issue here is that we're dealing with our funny species. We're trying to change behaviours and understandings that people learn from the day they're born. What happens inside the doors of a law firm often mirrors what happens outside those doors. Society goes through its ebbs and flows but there's a general direction forward. I don't think being discouraged, and discouraged is sort of the road to giving up, and that's obviously not going to work. What I would suggest we do is ensure that you connect with others. Join the ... and the cables and the savas and connect with those who are experiencing the same the things that you're experiencing. Ensure that you're logging your firm to do what needs to be done.
Cindy: Naveen, thanks so much for being here with us today. We've learned so much and I know that I'll be thinking about the framework of psychological safety in connection with ED&I efforts after today. For our listeners, if you ever have any questions, comments or ideas for topics and guests, please look us up at gowlingwlg.com/diversonomics and get in touch with us. We'd love to hear from you. Also make sure to check out the show notes for this episode at diversonomics.com. Last, but not least, make sure to subscribe on Apple Podcasts or Spotify so you don't miss an episode. While we're at it, please leave us a review to let us know what you think.
Roberto: You can also follow me on Twitter @robaburto.
Cindy: You can follow me on Twitter @ckoutweets.
Roberto: Naveen, do you have anything to plug?
Naveen: Thanks, Roberto. In framing the global conversation on D&I we want law firms around the world to be able to easily embed inclusion into their cultures. It's important, it's so important, for our profession to ensure that we do this properly and we do it well. That's why we've ensured that lawyers around the world have the opportunity to take our platform for a spin and really dig deep into what that means around diversity and inclusion. All they have to do is go to meshdiversity.com, click on log in, set up an account and they're in. They'll get to understand and do a deep dive into their own behaviour and access our inclusion learning lab. If you get a change it'd be great for your followers and your listeners to follow me on Twitter @naveenpmehta.
Roberto: Great. Diversonomics was presented to you by Gowling WLG, produced by Rachael Reid and edited by Matt Rideout. Thanks for listening.
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