In Episode 89, Melinda is joined by an incredible panel of executive coaches and DEI practitioners: Rajkumari Neogy, Valentina Jaramillo, and David Ciocca. Throughout the live recording, they discuss how allies and ERG leaders can be the key drivers for creating psychologically safe workplaces for the LGBTQIA+ community. They explore the science and epigenetics behind psychological safety and how it leads to healing our transgenerational trauma. They also share how allies can demonstrate concern and support for LGBTQIA+ folks in remote and hybrid workplaces and ways to cultivate psychological safety through an intersectional lens.
- Read the Kapor Center’s study on “Tech Leavers”
- Check out Rachel Yehuda’s interview on “How Trauma and Resilience Cross Generations”
- Check out Resmaa Menakem’s interview on ‘Notice the Rage; Notice the Silence’
- Watch Moshe Szyf’s TED Talk on “How early life experience is written into DNA”
- Read Dr. Joy DeGruy’s book, Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome: America’s Legacy of Enduring Injury and Healing
- Read James A Coan’s study on “Relationship status and perceived support in the social regulation of neural responses to threat”
- Check out Sarah Peyton’s book, Your Resonant Self, to dive into your own trauma and neurobiology healing
- Download the “State of Allyship Report: The Key to Workplace Inclusion”
- Watch or listen to EP8: “Understanding Intergenerational Trauma & Its Impact In The Workplace with Michael Thomas”
Learn more about Rajkumari’s work:
- Learn more about Rajkumari’s work as an Executive Coach
Learn more about Valentina’s work:
- Learn more about Valentina’s work at Rise In Love Coaching
Learn more about David’s work:
- Learn more about David’s work at Blend
This videocast is made accessible thanks to Interpreter-Now. Learn more about our show sponsor Interpreter-Now at www.interpreter-now.com.
- Valentina: “I remember a particular time here when I moved to the US, in my previous company, and I was advocating for gender-neutral bathrooms. I had a meeting with the committee of people, including the leaders who were in charge of the relations of the offices and trying to ask for them, and they didn’t understand what I was asking… I was also coming as a representative of the ERG. I was in the middle of a meeting with, like, 20 people who didn’t understand, who thought it was kind of a waste of their time to even be talking about it. And there was a leader who immediately stepped in… to the conversation and kind of cleared what I was trying to say. He gave some other examples… It was like, ‘Hey, you’re not alone. I get you. Let’s make this happen together.’ So I thought that was just incredible because again, I was feeling… super tiny and small and just attacked. And this person, without being a member of the community or anything but just kind to see and making the effort to understand what I was trying to convey, came up for support… It’s not only LGBTQ people that have to look for this. It could actually be something that we all look into, because there are going to be more benefits, just it’s not a specific benefit for LGBTQIA+ people, but it will end up benefiting everyone in the workplace.”
- David: “I think where you really make an impact is when you go inward. I think the pandemic also helped reinforce this lesson… when we couldn’t be as outward as we once were. And there was sort of beyond Pride, beyond LGBT History Month…, that seasonal aspect oftentimes what you see many ERGs or other organizations focus on. But what can we really do to support our employees? That’s where listening to the employees and hearing what their voices are saying, that can really be impactful. So when you’re able to take a data-driven story, we have x number of employees, for example, that are asking questions and advocating HIV prevention medicine. So we want this to be something that’s included in our benefits packages for our employees as a preventative, paid-for medication. Also, I shared some of the stories around transgender employees. Out of that, we were able to build, based on the feedback…, some gender transition policies and procedures that supported not only the employee going through the transition but also supporting their teammates around them, their leaders, their teams, etc. Everything also from even going back to the days of when we first started putting our pronouns even in our email signatures, and allowing that and helping our executives to understand we had to educate and advocate as to the business case for why should a CEO or an executive put this in there…, email signatures as a good example of that.”
- Rajkumari: “Whenever we, as humans, experience exclusion, this actually registers in the brain as physical injury. So, if we feel interrupted, humiliated, ridiculed, bullied, or micromanaged or are experiencing homophobia, Islamophobia, or ableism…, we’re on the receiving side of exclusion. The pain centers in our brain actually light up. So, it’s like being kicked in the shin, being punched in the gut. It’s also causing an inordinate amount of cortisol in the body, so these stress factors just skyrocketed. So, being able to become very aware, mindful, and intentional on how we are creating cultures of psychological safety is absolutely critical to our own well-being and our own mental health.”
- Valentina: “Intersectionality affects us all one way or another… because we are not just one thing, we have multiple identities combining… I completely understand the question that different cultures might have different exact situations of safety, but if we probably dig deep, there’s just like a basic human need for no harm… I think that the minimum requirement needs to be felt. If you believe there are many others crossing over and like, ‘Oh, these ones are telling me this, and the other ones are saying that, okay, what’s the basic no harm in order to produce that safety?’”
Executive Coach at ibelong
Rajkumari has worked with organizations worldwide, including HelloSign, Slack, Glympse, Salesforce, Gainsight, Twilio, Google, Guidewire, Intera, WhiteOps, Trumaker, Stratus, Ever AI, Walt Disney Animation Studios, Wells Fargo, Cisco Systems, Facebook, United States Digital Service (USDS), Shuddle, HopSkipDrive, Autodesk, Amazon, and Adobe. In 2013, S/He founded iRestart, which provides expertise in the areas of leadership development and organizational epigenetics. S/He is the creator of the iRestart coaching framework, the Disruptive Diversity Boot Camp, and the author of The WIT Factor: Shifting the Workplace Paradigm by Becoming Your Optimal Self.
Possessing a rare blend of techno-babble and touchy-feely, Rajkumari brings my keen insight and systems-thinking perspective to provide holistic and integrative solutions when addressing complex problems. He/She believes that the qualities of passionate self-reflection and dedicated curiosity (two sides of the same coin) define true leadership.
Coach and Co-founder at Rise In Love Coaching
Valentina was born and raised in Colombia. Curiosity has fueled their active and rich life. From graduating with a Bachelor of Science in Veterinary Medicine and a Master in Business Administration to working in clinical trials. From becoming a key opinion leader for healthcare and social media in Latin America to working with patient engagement, and social media at a pharmaceutical company in the US.
Valentina’s interest in Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion is infused in all their work. They have served as co-chair of LGBTQIA+ ERGs, been a member of DEI councils, and led the inclusion of gender-neutral bathrooms at her past company. Their experience as Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion workplace champion and education in anti-racism and allyship shape Valentina’s language to be non-gendered, inclusive, and empowering.
Before moving to the US they lived in Canada, Brazil, and Argentina.
Learning & Development Partner, Inclusion Programs at Blend
David Ciocca is a Learning & Development Partner on Blend’s Global Impact, Equity, and Belonging team. David has over 20 years of experience in a variety of professional capacities including employee engagement, learning and development, DEI, leadership development, and mentoring program management. In his current role, David leads the overall design and implementation of DEI learning and development opportunities to enhance the employee experience of belonging and inclusion at Blend.
David previously served for over 5 years in regional and enterprise lead roles in corporate employee resources groups supporting LGBTQIA+ colleagues and allies in the workplace. David earned a certification in “DEI in the Workplace” from the University of South Florida and an MBA from Walsh University in Ohio. David is a resident of Akron, Ohio, and in his spare time enjoys live music, theater, travel, film, and teaching Zumba.
MELINDA: Welcome to Leading With Empathy & Allyship, where we have deep real conversations to build empathy for one another, and to take action to be more inclusive, and to lead the change in our workplaces and communities.
I’m Melinda Briana Epler, founder and CEO of Change Catalyst, and author of How to Be an Ally. I’m a diversity, equity, and inclusion speaker, advocate, and advisor. You can learn more about my work and sign up to join us for a live recording at ally.cc.
All right, let’s dive in.
MELINDA: Welcome everybody to Change Catalyst Live Events Series, and the Leading With Empathy & Allyship show, where we have deep real conversations about how we can be more inclusive in our workplaces and communities. I’m Melinda Briana Epler, author of How to Be an Ally, and founder and CEO of Change Catalyst, where we build inclusive innovation through training, consulting, coaching, and events.
Today, our topic is creating psychologically safe workplaces for LGBTQIA+ folks. Excited to jump into that conversation with three amazing panelists who are going to share their insight today. We have Rajkumari Neogy, who’s an executive at iBelong.
Then, we have Valentina Jaramillo, coach and co-founder of Rise in Love Coaching, and David Ciocca, learning and development partner inclusion programs at Blend. So, thank you all for joining us. Welcome.
Let’s start by just kind of defining psychological safety first and what that looks like and feels like. Can anybody jump in please? What is psychological safety and what does that look like? What does that feel like?
DAVID: I’ll jump right in, if that’s okay. I think psychological safety when we look at sort of the academic definition of it, of course, that’s where there’s an environment, a culture where people really can feel safe, where they can be vulnerable, and take risks and not have that fear of failure or judgment upon them.
I think specifically for the LGBTQIA population, what that means for us is not only just not hiding who we are, but being able to speak our truth, and really be our best and most authentic selves. And so, at the same time, too, I think there’s a balance, where we also don’t want to be pigeonholed into being simply defined by how we identify ourselves as well. So that’s sort of how I see psychological safety.
VALENTINA: I would just add on that, for me, psychological safety, it’s probably something that comes from a feeling in the body also, when we long, long time ago that our brain wanted to protect us from the environment, from carnivores, that’s not happening today.
So, it’s our brain that wants to protect us from situations in which we don’t feel threatened, in which we don’t feel like we’re going to be in danger. So, as you mentioned, David, being able to be vulnerable, to be who we are, to express ourselves in whatever metric we want.
And as LGBTQIA+ members, also, yeah, not having to act as someone else. Being able to be ourselves without worrying, “Oh, can I mention my partner or my partners?” Or what are my likes and my dislikes without worrying that we’re going to be retaliated on or bullied or whatever form.
RAJKUMARI: Yeah. I think I agree with both David and Valentina. I would just simply say, wherever you are permitting exclusion, behaviors of exclusion, you’re leaking psychological safety.
MELINDA: My next question was really getting into what are the consequences of not having psychological safety for LGBTQIA+ folks? Why is it important for us? Would you mind jumping in and starting there?
RAJKUMARI: Well, whenever we, as humans, experience exclusion, this actually registers in the brain as physical injury. If we feel interrupted or humiliated or ridiculed or bullied or micromanaged, or are experiencing homophobia or Islamophobia or ableism, or whatever it is, we’re on the receiving side of exclusion. The pain centers in our brain actually light up.
So, it’s like being kicked in the shin. It’s like being punched in the gut. It’s also causing an inordinate amount of cortisol in the body. So, these stress factors just skyrocketed. So, being able to become very aware, and mindful and intentional on how we are creating cultures of psychological safety is absolutely critical to our own well-being and our own mental health.
MELINDA: Would any of you be open to sharing a time where maybe you didn’t feel psychologically safe or just an instance where that can come up? I think that will be helpful.
VALENTINA: I can share. I’m from Colombia. I think I forgot to mention but I was born and raised in Colombia. While working there, I was not out because I didn’t feel psychologically safe. And maybe there were no particular signs of anyone directly saying anything, but it was just the ambience and the mood.
For example, little things like people making jokes about gay people, right? Or people making just the assumption, for example, that oh, the first question they would ask me. Again, I’m female presenting so if I had a male partner and in Spanish it’s very clear, because it’s a very gendered language. So, it was very clear. Like, they wouldn’t ask about the partner right, the boyfriend. So, it was very gendered.
These just didn’t allow me to feel that safety, even if it wasn’t, like, they weren’t saying something against me or anything. It wasn’t the environment to feel like, okay, here I can be whatever I can be, right? Or whoever I am. It’s completely a narrow space with people who are just making so many assumptions that I felt, okay, the way people see me, it’s going to be judged completely/entirely if I come out.
Maybe it was just perception, but again, it was perception I got because of the jokes that they make, all the comments, or the things even if people were not present. And just like, okay. They use words to talk about these people as a joke and everything, like okay, maybe this is not a safe space for me to be who I truly am.
DAVID: Melinda, I can share some examples from my ERG perspective as well that come to mind as my friends on the panel kind of sparked some memories for me. I can think of an occasion with an employee. And this is maybe pretty overt, where this employee was going through a gender transition, had explicitly changed their pronouns and even their name, and their manager and some of their team just were not accepting of that and kind of flippantly just went about using their dead name. That can be extremely traumatic for someone going through transition to have their pronouns and their dead name being used.
Out of that experience, you know, that came to me as the leader of the ERG in the organization. So, you know, it was one of those situations that sometimes we’re put in these positions where we may not always know how to handle that but we want to help. Being as overt as that was, that involved quite a bit of intervention, of course, with HR and DEI areas, of course, and all of that.
We immediately removed that employee from that situation. It did turn into a positive after the fact. We, of course, lost that employee because of that experience is what ended up happening. Top talent as one of the consequences of that. That other manager was removed as not necessarily a great fit for the culture of the organization as well.
What that really showed for me was oftentimes there’s this large disconnect between who possibly an organization says they are, how they may appear. You visit the website, the employees visit the internal, you know, intranet, etc., all the internal channels of communication, and it might look pretty, right? It might look inclusive but that’s not always that day-to-day experience for employees in those organizations.
On the flip side too, and I think this is where I first realized what psychological safety meant as a feeling as Valentina described that was in planning my first Pride event as far as a Pride March, and getting caught up in all the logistics of what that looks like. We’ve got to get our T shirts and our swag and our place in line. Everyone is working towards getting that event just right as far as the event goes.
The mother of one of the employees pulled me aside and just shared with me how this was the first time their daughter who happen also to be transgender, I wasn’t even aware of any of those dynamics at the time, how this was possibly the best day of her life that she had observed because she was so joyful. This employee was really just feeling themselves and they could just be open and her mother was just beyond belief that she was seeing her daughter for the first time.
I think that really hit me as gosh, that is maybe what the psychological safety concept really means and looks like as an example. So, those were two that came out part of the conversation that we’ve been having so far.
MELINDA: Yeah, thank you all for sharing that. I think that for many organizations, many ERGs, many people working to create change around diversity, equity, and inclusion, we’ve done the Pride Parade and we kind of move on and forget that it can be really powerful. We forget that it can be great rainbow washing on one hand, it can also be something deeply powerful for folks on the other hand too. Yeah.
Psychological safety is an important determinant of productivity and also cohesiveness, trust in performance on teams. Absolutely. And yeah, I think psychological safety is a key piece of allyship to what we’ve learned in our research round allyship, which we’ll get into in a bit. It shows that when we have more allies in workplaces, we’re more psychologically safe.
I think it’s a combination of that recognition, it’s a combination of intervening when somebody does or says something harmful and so on. The Kapor center released a tech leavers study a few years ago about why people leave tech. For LGBTQI+ folks in particular, it was bullying, it was major microaggressions that people were experiencing. And so, I want to call that out too, that’s really important.
And then, I think I also just wanted to kind of add on to what Rajkumari said is that when we have those, and also Valentina that that physical response, that response of trauma, it can also be lasting. And maybe Rajkumari, you could talk a little bit more about this because I know this goes deep into your work as your work goes deep into this.
It can be lasting and we can pass it on from generation to generation so we can have this intergenerational trauma. Honestly, we can cause harm if we don’t heal ourselves and that trauma ourselves too. Rajkumari, I know you have thoughts about this. Would you like to share?
RAJKUMARI: Yeah. So, when we talk about belonging, we need to include this conversation around epigenetics. Epigenetics is really this understanding that the stressors in our environment impact how our genes express themselves. If we used to work at a workplace that was toxic, that we were micromanaged or bullied, our whole nervous system adapts to that and actually is now configured, if you will, to constantly scan for toxicity and bullying managers or micromanage managers or whatever.
When we leave that toxic environment, get a new job and we find ourselves, “Oh, this is much better.” our nervous system and our genetics update that expression. And so, the stressors in our environment are constantly impacting our nervous system and our cellular biology. The research also shows that we carry the traits, tragedies and traumas trans generationally of those stressors.
And so, when I talk about epigenetics, every single human being on the planet is impacted by this. And depending upon which source is cited, Rachel Yehuda talks about how we carry those traits, tragedies, and traumas for 210 years. Dr. Joy DeGruy says it’s 300 years, and Resmaa Menakem says it’s 490 years.
This is really important to understand because when we show up in the workplace in moments of stress when we don’t feel included, when we have a sense of being dismissed or othered in any capacity, this lights up our epigenetics and we’re immediately scanning now for an understanding that we’re unsafe in some capacity.
So, you know, there’s some very serious ramifications around psychological safety and cultures of inclusion because we are dealing with mental health, we are dealing with well-being, and we are dealing with human bodies.
MELINDA: For those of you who are interested, in an interview with Michael Thomas, I can’t remember what episode it was, but it was in the first season. He shows an example of that, that is exactly what Rajkumari is talking about. So, please feel free to go check that out if you’re interested in learning more about how that feels in somebody’s body as a Black man. He was talking from his own experience as a Black man. Anybody else have anything else to add before we move on?
Okay. So, as I mentioned, we have learned in our own research that it makes a big difference for LGBTQIA+ folks as well as anybody with an underrepresented identity that is out to have allies in the workplace. And even just having one ally in the workplace makes a significant difference for LGBTQIA+ folks.
So, I wanted to ask each of you, if you might share an example of how an ally supported you in your career, in your life. And if you don’t have an example, perhaps an example of when you wished or when an ally could have supported you.
DAVID: I can go ahead and share, Melinda. My experience with allyship that I’m going to share speaks again to the ERG experience as well within the organization I was with. An ally, that’s a topic, allyship, that’s close to my heart personally and individually. Allies have literally saved my life. I like to share along the way there too.
As a newer leader in the DEI space myself several years back, one of my biggest surprises was how many allies had raised their hands and had stepped up to not only be engaged members of the ERG, but they were actually stepping into leadership roles. It came to the point where we had about little over 40% of our leaders, we had a regional leadership team as well as a corporate team.
It’s not like we were necessarily calling out, you know, are you an ally or a member of the community, but it was just obvious by them sharing their stories that they were the allies here. And they were the ones that were stepping up and taking these leadership roles in an LGBTQIA group as specific allies.
It was a really kind of interesting and humbling situation. It taught me a lot. It started me on my allyship journey of understanding what that really means. And even through that process, one of the interesting things that might have happened, as you may be able to imagine, there was backlash.
Backlash was experienced by some of those ally leaders by members that felt that we needed someone from a direct part of the community to be the only ones that can really be leading in that space. Like, sure come march with us in Pride. Sure, come to our events. Talk to us on our internal channels. But, you know, leadership? That should be reserved for only those members that identified, right.
That took us on a long discussion and a long cultural shift of really understanding, I think, what allyship really means. And really, over time, by understanding why those allies had stepped into that space, knowing what their “why” was, I think really helped to bring that about. When you really listen to someone’s why they do the work that they do, that really made the difference, I think over time, and that really changed the tone of allyship.
And then also, throw in there over the past couple of years, what we all know has gone on with the social justice movement, you know, going back to the murder of George Floyd, etc. All of that sort of took us again on advancing that journey of allyship and what that really means, whether it’s opportunities of understanding and leveraging intersectionality really becoming that ally with other underrepresented groups, as you already mentioned, Melinda, and really looking for the helpers to steal a Mr. Rogerism. But you know, Mr. Rogers always looked for the helpers out there. And when you have someone that’s willing to be a helper of your cause, that’s someone that you can learn to rely upon.
When you have those folks that are willing to step out of themselves, raise their hand as an ally to even lead and engage in your space, that was something that really started a journey of change around the understanding of allyship and really move things forward around that.
VALENTINA: Thanks for sharing, David. And yeah, I agree. Allyship can definitely make a big difference. My particular example I wanted to share too; one was definitely that back in Colombia. That time when I was not able to come out, allies would have benefited me. There’s someone who would have stepped in and stopped people when they’re making jokes, even if they didn’t know I was already a member of the community or not, just hearing that someone was stopping these jokes, or someone was doing this.
Yeah, just kind of like, “Hey, this is not correct, or this doesn’t sound right.” It would have made me feel safer. I can imagine, I was not the only person in the closet there because it was a large company. So, it would probably have helped many others.
I remember a particular time here when I moved to the US, in my previous company, and I was advocating for gender neutral bathrooms. I had a meeting with the committee of people, including the leadership who were in-charge of the relations of the offices and trying to ask for them. They didn’t understand what I was asking. Right? Like it was a completely new concept that came into their minds, and were like, “Okay.”
I was coming also as a representative of the ERG. I was in the middle of a meeting with like 20 people who didn’t understand, who thought it was kind of a waste of their time to even be talking about it. And there was a leader who immediately stepped out. He stepped into the conversation and kind of cleared what I was trying to say. He gave some other examples. They just asked, and it was like, “Hey, you’re not alone. I get you. Let’s make this happen together.”
I thought that was just incredible because again, I was feeling like these tiny probably, super tiny and small and just attacked. This person without being a member of the community or anything, but just kind to see and making the effort to understand what I was trying to convey came up for support. It was like, “Oh, okay. Awesome. So, I don’t have to do this on my own.”
It’s not only LGBTQ people that have to look for this. It could actually be something that we all look into, because there are going to be more benefits, just it’s not a specific benefit for LGBTQIA+ people, but it will end up benefiting everyone in the workplace. So, that was a good example for me.
RAJKUMARI: These are great stories. I’ll share the polarity of that. When I was at Adobe, I used to travel every week for business. So, I was there for about three years. It was incredibly stressful to be in airports because if I had to use the bathroom, there was always a challenge. I remember so many moments of panicking before walking into the bathroom.
I think about that. I think about the incredible stress of just something so mundane being a terrifying experience for some people, including myself. I think about how automatic water faucets so many years ago were technologically created for lighter skinned individuals. And so, Black and Brown people had to actually use their palms to activate the faucet. This is a heartbreaking experience.
This just came out recently around COVID. The oximeters that were being used early on were designed for light skinned individuals. And so, there were mis readings for the Black and Brown communities around the actual symptoms and the severity of the symptoms. So, when we start to consider tech inclusion, it’s so critical that we really understand that allyship is embodied everywhere.
MELINDA: Yeah, absolutely. In our research, the top way that LGBTQIA+ folks prefer that their ally show up for them is to take action when somebody does or says something harmful to me, which everybody’s nodding. Yeah. Yeah. And on the flip side, when we have allies, we are 71% more likely to feel safe in the workplace. Just one ally. One ally. And then, when that number grows, the more allies that somebody has. So, it’s remarkable how just one person, any of us, any of us can be there for somebody and really make a difference in psychological safety.
RAJKUMARI: On the other side, because I’m a geek, and I’m all about the research, so if anyone’s wanting to learn more about it, there’s some incredible studies done by James A. Coan that talks about getting shocked and being alone in a room. And what happens with the pain centers when their actual loved ones are in the room, how the brain doesn’t even register as pain. And this is mind blowing. So, the degree that we have support, the more we are able to function in exponential capacities.
MELINDA: I want to move into other solutions too. I know there are folks that are managers that are on the call so I want to make sure that we address what managers can do and their policies as well. I think that can help create psychological safety. David and also Valentina, please feel free to share too because I know you’ve done work on ERGs. Could you share the role ERGs can have in creating psychological safety, and what that looks like?
DAVID: Absolutely. I’ll jump right in on that one, if I may. I think the role that an ERG can play in an organization is not to be underestimated, and it’s something that took time for me to truly understand. So, it’s all of the big and all of the little things that can happen within and around your ERG.
So, you have sort of the outward expression of the ERG. At times, of course, the PR or the marketing side, what you participate in, what the public sees about you. That can help make people feel possibly safe about where they’re at. Right? They want to feel comfortable that they see that, others see that. So, that’s just sort of the start. But I think where you really make an impact is when you go inward.
I think the pandemic also helped reinforce this lesson for us as an ERG as well. So, when we were forced to go inward when we couldn’t be as outward as we once were. And there was sort of beyond pride, beyond LGBT History Month, right? You know, just that seasonal aspect oftentimes what you see many ERGs or other organizations focus on but gosh, what can we really do to support our employees?
That’s where listening to the employees and hearing what their voices are saying, that can really be impactful. So, when you’re able to take a data driven story, we have x number of employees, for example, that are asking questions and advocating, for example, HIV prevention medicine. So, we want this to be something that’s included in our benefit packages for our employees as a preventative paid for medication. It’s something that we’ve had people bring up.
We have this many discussions going on currently. Here’s some external research. Here’s some stuff from our benefits area. Here’s things from the provider. So, it was kind of interesting in that ERG space when you become that person, like this liaison organization and/or person that’s pulling all of that work together. And you know, I never really thought I would be sort of a benefits advocate in my career, but that’s certainly what I became.
Also, I shared some of the stories around transgender employees. So, out of that, we were able to build based on the feedback and even the two stories that I shared and many others, some gender transition policies and procedures that supported not only the employee going through the transition but also supporting their teammates around them, their leaders, their teams, etc.
Everything also from even going back to the days of when we first started putting our pronouns even in our email signatures, and allowing that and helping our executives to understand we had to educate and advocate as to the business case for why should a CEO or an executive put this in there, you know, email signatures as a good example of that.
Valentina mentioned bathroom signage. And then also, Rajkumari, you mentioned through storytelling, which is also just so powerful when you hear someone share that story about just the trauma of deciding, needing to use the restroom, and not knowing what to do or where to go. Starting that conversation, which, you know, I’m no longer at that organization, it’s still an ongoing challenge and situation around that one so I can definitely understand where you were, how you were feeling Valentina being that person in the room, you know, with facilities, and maybe not getting that full understanding of what needs to be done there but those discussions continue to happen.
When they come from the employees, first of all, it shows that you’re not just hearing them, you’re listening to them. When you’re transparent about where you’re at, through the process, when you engage the leadership at whatever level is appropriate to be part of that conversation and to share as much as you can with the employees, that also really helps to create that sense of psychological safety.
Wow, folks are actually listening to my issues or problems. I maybe didn’t get the exact result that I would dream of and hope for and wish for but someone heard me. Wow, David from the ERG listened to me, and then I was followed up by this person in DEI, this person in HR. David checked in on me, or whoever checked in on me a couple of months later to see if things had improved. Those are the small steps that make that larger impact. So, I think that the focus of going inward was really powerful thinking about the work that the ERG can do to influence policy and procedures.
VALENTINA: Thank you. Thank you, David. I agree with what you said. I would add the power of here. This is immense. I’m guessing that depending on the size of the company and the size, like at the end, we end up having to prioritize, right? Like, ERGs. So, definitely making sure that those basic safety needs are being met, how can the ERG help to ensure we are asking about pronouns, we are handling that part, you know. They are gender neutral, but just kind of the basics in order for people to feel safe.
And then of course, doing as much benefit parties is very important. We also had the fortune to be on a big enough team in which we could kind of divide. And one of the projects I was involved in, and it was like in the global ERG, let’s say, not the local one just in the US but in the global was with actually trying to change policy in countries.
I used to work for a pharma company. And so, whatever things can be changed, how can these big fortune 500 companies can influence policy. For example, the headquarters of the company was in Switzerland. So, there was how do we work together? The LGBTQ ERG with the policy team, then what is the policy team, the pharma policy team to be able to talk to the government and see what else they can do or whatever.
And for example, I know, they ended up in Switzerland passing a marriage. It was not only the company I used to work for but several just getting together, showing that it needed to be that this is the right thing. With HIV, probably a lot that companies can do also in the lobbying part. So, the benefit becomes multiple.
One thing I would kind of also just mention because I think it’s not only the benefit that’s in for the LGBTQ and this is in order to show value for the company, right, because this is all to our side. But if we show like there’s an extra value for companies to have an ERG that if they’re doing a campaign, they can run it by the ERG. The ERG can give their opinion to make sure that the campaign is being inclusive or the product that they’re launching. They actually have people from any underrepresented community, whether it’s LGBTQIA+ ERG, or Black ERG, or whatever ERG just to make sure that there is an input on that behind. And that way, maybe there’s easier for companies to buy in the need of the ERGs and make sure that the support is given, like both ways, right.
MELINDA: I want to remind everybody that allies who are on the line looking to plug in looking to support most LGBTQIA+ ERGs are open for allies in the workplace, right? So, all of this can be you advocating for gender neutral restrooms, advocating for policies that are more inclusive, all of this can be a way to plug in and be a better ally. How can we be better allies for LGBTQIA+ folks in the remotes or hybrid workplace?
DAVID: I’ll just jump in really quick and share that when there is an event, whether it be a legislative event, positive or negative, something in the media, I’ll even go back to Paul Shooting, for example, how anyone can be an ally in the workplace or beyond. One easy way to do it to start as a first step is do a check in with your friends, because those events, whether they’re happening near you or by you or to you, they do impact all the members of that community in various ways and at different levels.
Quite honestly, it can be a text message. It can be, “Hey, I’m available to talk.” It doesn’t have to be 90 minutes of your time. But I think that reaching out, as small and simple as that sound, can be very powerful. And then on the corporate side, or the business side of things, when those things happen, I think having the brave conversations around them and opening up the space to allow folks to share about that.
And also, then including the other groups as well, right. So other ERGs, other underrepresented minorities, doing that as your own group when events happen that maybe affect a certain underrepresented minority community, be sure you’re engaging in that conversation as well.
I think it starts really by not just assuming that people know that you’re this great person and this ally. And of course, you know, David supports me in that. Well, they may not know that. We can’t let that be taken for granted. So, I think saying hi, checking in, and asking, “How can I help in this area?” whether it be to a group or an individual, that can go a long way.
RAJKUMARI: I’ll offer two things to dovetail on David’s point. I hold regular healing hours after every tragedy that occurs. Obviously, you can imagine that it’s now weekly and exhausting. Talk about second degree, secondhand stress, and secondhand trauma. It absolutely is there.
So, that’s the first thing is to get a facilitator who is really masterful at being able to hold space and to also course correct when needed when conversations might go a little to an area that might not be okay and get kind of polarized. We want to stay focused on healing, holding our feelings, and really speaking from a place of pain.
Creating that community is tremendous. People walk away with a sliver of hope, people walk away with some more levity. People walk away with feeling that they’ve actually got to express their grief or their rage. And then there’s a release in that. So, creating containers in that way.
The second thing is, you know, we’re wired to belong but we’re also wired to be in a relationship. And how we are rewired is the relationships that we keep, but the language that we use, so to really learn what it’s like to speak from a resonant place, versus an advice-giving place. To really learn to speak from a place of compassionate empathy versus a solution-oriented way of looking at it. So yes, we might want to see action, absolutely. We want to see those gender-neutral bathrooms in airports, at least I do. And we have to meet people where they are in their pain, and to really become masterful in knowing how to do that to create that level of community and cohesion, I think will do wonders.
MELINDA: I love that. Can you give an example of what that looks like or how somebody might start in going about that?
RAJKUMARI: When we talk about validating someone’s experience, the opposite of that is gaslighting. So, a very simple way to talk about and show an example of gaslighting is someone in the office is like, “Oh my gosh, I’m so cold.” And the person next to them says, “No, it’s not. What’s your problem?” or some version of that. That’s a dismissing or discounting of someone’s experience versus a validation.
If someone comes and says, “Well, I’m having a really tough time right now.” and your first inclination is, “Well, how can we fix that? How can we solve that?” If that’s your first inclination, that’s great, but that person might not be there yet. And before we get to an action-oriented way of communicating to actually come over to your right hemisphere and go, “Oh, wow, tell me more. Would you like to share? Is there something heavy on your heart?” Whatever feels comfortable to you to use that language, but to stay in that place of resonance on the right side, and then as things start to shift in the conversation, if they’re willing and ready for that to move into an action-oriented way of being with them.
MELINDA: Awesome. Can you speak about the intersectionality of psychological safety and culture? Different cultures have different definitions of what is safe and unsafe? And definitely, there are lots of global teams too where multiple cultures are working together. Any thoughts y’all have?
RAJKUMARI: Well, if we think about it from an epigenetic lens, this is kind of a very complex situation, right? So, if I grew up in an Indian family, which I did, and then I come out as gay, I’m trying to be my most vulnerable, authentic self by expressing my homosexual nature. But I’m also torn between the conditions and cultures of my traditional Indian family. How do I reconcile that? How do I even hold that space in myself?
I talk about this all the time in my Biology of Belonging Bootcamp that this is actually the shadow side of belonging. How do we honor where we come from? And how do we honor who we are and where the differences are? How do we reconcile those differences, and how do we let it be okay to be who we are while staying in honor of, or in loyalty to our family? Welcome to being human. This is so complex.
MELINDA: Valentina, did you have to answer?
VALENTINA: Yes, I completely agree with Rajkumari. Definitely a complex situation. But I think intersectionality affects us all one way or another. Right? Just because we are not just one thing. We have multiple identities combining. I think safety, there’s probably a general way.
I completely understand the question that different cultures might have different exact situations of safety but if we probably dig deep, there’s just like a basic human need of no harm which I’m getting that we talked about at the end. I think that minimum requirement needs to be felt. If you believe there are many others crossing over and like, “Oh, these ones are telling me this, and the other ones are saying that, okay, what’s the basic no harm in order to produce that safety?”
RAJKUMARI: I just want to say I love that.
MELINDA: How can one express that they’re not feeling psychologically safe at work when the higher ups have no clue or understanding? Any thoughts there?
DAVID: Well, I feel like, you know, the ERG concepts and culture if implemented properly and openly is a possible place that someone can go to. I know I’ve served in that role. Not understanding that would be my role. Jumping into it as that safe place to go.
Here we are right back to the consequences of not feeling psychologically safe. If that is the situation, the damage often can be permanent and deep if you feel that for so long. Rajkumari, I just never understood the science around it so you’ve just opened my eyes and so many others, I think, to what’s actually happening when that goes on with us physiologically as well.
I think the consequences are that the situation cannot persist, right? So, something is going to have to give and the sad part is what often gives is that person that feels unsafe, you know, is the one that sort of maybe loses for lack of a better word in that situation. I think ERGs can be a possible solution if implemented and created in a safe place for folks to go to in a situation like that.
RAJKUMARI: I’ll just offer this question as an executive coach. For those who are resistant, things that you can ask are, what would you like more of in terms of where you want to go with the company or the department or the mission statement? So, what would you like more of? What’s your biggest fear? What are you most afraid of? What’s currently missing? What’s currently at risk? That will just really kind of spur a conversation.
MELINDA: That’s so great. Awesome. Okay. One last question. Given the fracturing of American society in general, are you noticing a growing division within the LGBTQIA+ community? What can our community members do to see here and lift up our other members who have different identities in particular?” We’ve talked about intersectionality, too. Any thoughts?
DAVID: I mean, it speaks to I think we addressed a lot of the allyship sort of topic there. We could go deeper. I know we only have a couple of minutes there but I think asking the question is where we begin. I may not have the final steps that we need to take but if there is another community or intersectionality that is part of who you are, I think seeking out and asking the questions is the only way you can really know what to do instead of making the assumption that (A) they know I’m an ally, or (B), that I know what to do as an ally. I think asking questions is where we start with this because the division is just what it is right now. It’s not great. So, being open minded and asking questions.
VALENTINA: Being compassionate also, I think. Using compassionate ways to why we’re here if the opinion that we hear is different from ours does not end up in that divide, and who has the right view. So, just trying to come from a place of compassion, always, I think it helps.
RAJKUMARI: I’ll just end with, you know, I was running a couple of bootcamps. We did some data kind of excavation. I thought that belonging would be the biggest unmet need across all of the groups, it wasn’t. Not feeling valued was the biggest unmet need and the neurochemical associated with not being valued is endogenous opioids. It starts to make a lot of sense when we think about the opioid epidemic in this country and how it’s taken off again most recently.
When we don’t feel valued, when we don’t feel like our contribution matters, I think that’s at the core of it. And how can we as individuals, as leaders, move toward holding that as a primary value.
MELINDA: I love it. Thank you all. Thank you all for sharing your wisdom and your work. I know we can continue to talk about this for quite a long time. There’s a lot more to unpack here but I appreciate you all. I also appreciate all the comments and the great questions today. Thank you for joining. I appreciate everybody who contributed, our ASL interpreters, and Maggie as well, live captioning.
Please take action. Please think of one action that you’re going to take as a result of listening or watching today. Please take action. What is that one action you’re going to take? And of course, if you want to check out our past episodes, visit ally.cc. We will be live again next month on the fifth of July. So, I look forward to seeing you all then. Until then, thank you again everybody for taking action. I appreciate you all.
MELINDA: To learn more about this episode’s topic, visit ally.cc.
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Leading With Empathy & Allyship is an original show by Change Catalyst, where we build inclusive innovation through training, consulting, and events. Appreciate you listening to our show and taking action as an ally. See you next week.
Host: Melinda Briana Epler
Melinda Briana Epler has over 25 years of experience developing business innovation and inclusion strategies for startups, Fortune 500 companies, and global NGOs.
As CEO of Change Catalyst, Melinda currently works with the tech industry to solve diversity and inclusion together. Using her background in storytelling and large-scale culture change, she is a strategic advisor for tech companies, tech hubs, and governments around the world. She co-leads a series of global solutions-focused conferences called Tech Inclusion, where she has partnered with over 450 tech companies and community organizations and hosted 43 solutions-focused diversity and inclusion events around the world.
Previously, Melinda was a Marketing and Culture Executive and award-winning documentary filmmaker – her film and television work includes projects that exposed the AIDS crisis in South Africa, explored women’s rights in Turkey, and prepared communities for the effects of climate change. She has worked on several television shows, including NBC’s The West Wing.
Melinda is a TED speaker. She speaks, mentors and writes about diversity and inclusion in tech, allyship, social entrepreneurship, underrepresented entrepreneurs and investing. She has spoken on hundreds of stages around the world, including SXSW, Grace Hopper, Wisdom 2.0, the World Bank, Obama White House, Clinton Foundation, Black Enterprise, Google, Indeed, Capital One and McKinsey.
Watch Melinda’s TED Talk
Change Catalyst Co-Founder Melinda Briana Epler has spoken across the globe in hundreds of venues and virtual events. Empathy, Allyship, Advocacy, Microaggressions, Inclusive Leadership, and Building Inclusive Teams are just some of the topics Melinda has spoken on. Let us know about your next speaking engagement needs! Melinda has also spoken on how to build organizational capacity to advance diversity, equity, and inclusion, such as how to lead behavior change or how to build allies and advocates.
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