230 : Organizational Equity During COVID-19 (w/ Dr. Erin Thomas)

Zach has the honor of having a conversation with Dr. Erin L. Thomas, Head of Diversity, Inclusion & Belonging at Upwork, about organizational equity during the COVID-19 pandemic. She graciously shares some advice regarding what organizations can do during this time to at the very least reduce harm for their black and brown employees and talks a bit about how her perspective and focuses at work have shifted as this pandemic has continued. Check the links in the show notes to connect with Dr. Thomas!

Link up with Dr. Thomas on Twitter! She’s also on LinkedIn.

Learn more about Upwork on their website. You can view their open positions by clicking here

Find out how the CDC suggests you wash your hands by clicking here.

Help food banks respond to COVID-19. Learn more at FeedingAmerica.org.


Zach: What’s up, everybody? It’s Zach, and you know what? I’ma just go ahead and say it right now. It’s also Emory. Emory, say something. [Emory breathes] That’s just her breathing. Emory is, at the time of this recording, six weeks old. So we’re here because I’m on daddy duty and my wife has to get some sleep. That’s right. Husbands, help your wives, or partners rather, excuse me – not to be overly gendered on a podcast all focused on inclusion, equity and diversity. Help your partners, you know what I’m saying? Everybody, you know, they–one person can’t do it all. Sometimes you gotta step in, and this podcast is great, and I love y’all, but of course I love my daughter the most. Well, I love my wife also. Let me not do any type of weird hierarchy right now live, like, a live-streaming conscience of thought on the podcast, but the point is you have responsibilities. There are things that take precedent. And look, we’re in a new normal, so I’m just here. Where was I? Right, Living Corporate. So look, Living Corporate amplifies and centers black and brown voices at work. Why do I say black and brown and not, like, people of color? Because I want to be very explicit, we want to be very explicit, with what our mission is. So we aim to center and amplify black and brown identities, marginalized folks, folks on the periphery, in the workplace, and we do that how? We do that by having real talk in a corporate world. Now how do we do that? We do that by interviewing incredible leaders cut from all type of cloth. And, you know, we’ve had executives. We’ve had professors, entrepreneurs, public servants, activists, civil leaders, elected officials. We’ve had all types of people, artists, and today is no different. Today we have Dr. Erin L. Thomas. Dr. Thomas is the head of diversity, inclusion and belonging at Upwork where she leads diversity, inclusion and belonging, or DIBs. She leads the strategy implementation and coaching for all of Upwork. Prior to Upwork though, Dr. Thomas was a managing director at Paradigm, a diversity and inclusion strategy firm where she partnered with companies to embed DIBs into organizations through culture transformation and people development. Prior to Paradigm, Erin held positions at Grant Thornton LLP, Argonne National Laboratory developing D&I strategies, programming and metrics. Her work has been featured in Fast Company and the New York Times and recognized by Forbes, Human Rights Campaign, the National Association for Female Executives and the Equal Opportunity Magazine. She holds a PhD in social psychology, a Master of Philosophy in social psychology; a Master of Science in social psychology; and a Bachelor of Arts in psychology and international studies from Yale University. She is accredited, y’all. Okay? Don’t question us, okay? We’re coming to y’all. We bring y’all heat rock every single week, and the heat rock we bring is because we have guests that have heat rock. I’ma say heat rock again just so y’all get the point. Yes, I’m turnt up. Yes, it’s a Tuesday. Who cares? Erin, what’s up? Welcome to the show. How are you doing?

Dr. Thomas: I’m doing great. Thanks so much for having me. Hi, little baby Emory. I am so excited to be here, and I want to give you a number. So I’m really into, during COVID times, anchoring, you know, “How are you doing?” on a scale. 1 is, you know, “We’ve got to get out of here and get some more support.” Like, “We’re not doing well.” 10 is, you know, “COVID what? COVID who?” But I think, like, if you’re a 10, you also probably need some external support.

Zach: Facts. [laughs]

Dr. Thomas: And I think today I am… I’m, like, a 7, 8. I’m very excited to be chatting with you. What’s your number?

Zach: That’s a really good question. You know, I don’t know. So it’s interesting because your scale, I don’t know how it accounts for, like, other things, right? So, like, I’m also here with, like, a six-week-old baby. So maybe I’m, like, a–so, like, coronavirus is not, like, at the top of my mind because I’m trying to focus on keeping this thing that looks like me alive. Maybe I’m, like, a–I’d probably say I’m, like, a 7, 8. Like, I’m pretty good. I’m happy, right? Like, I mean, life is good. The new Drake album–well, not the album, but a little collection of loosies came out recently that was very good, that I enjoyed. You know, my favorite shows are still coming on. I’ve caught up on some anime. So I’m keeping myself well-distracted.

Dr. Thomas: [laughs] That’s good. I think distracted is good. I think–I don’t know, I think in the beginning days of all of this it felt, for me at least, a little weird to compartmentalize, or I felt a little guilty, but I actually think that’s incredibly healthy, you know, to find moments of just pleasure and delight. That’s all we got, right? That’s all we got.

Zach: I mean, this–the reality is that before this pandemic, like, I was already a homebody. Now, people at work–like, people who know me from work would–they may not know that, because, like, in person, like, I’m a fairly gregarious guy. But, like, you know, people are complex, right? I think, like, we create a lot of these terms and things that aren’t really academic or scientific just to kind of better compartmentalize people, like, “You’re an extrovert, you’re an introvert.” It’s like, “I mean, I enjoy people, but I also enjoy being alone.” Like, I enjoy being at home, being with my wife and now my kid. Like, I’m fine with that. But I’m glad, I’m glad that you’re excited. I’m excited and in a good place as well. You know, this would be interesting to do again, like, if our numbers were wildly different, right? So, like, you’re a 7, 8, I’m a 7, 8, but if I was, like, a 2, then, like, I wonder how the dynamics of this discussion would look, especially considering what we’re talking about.

Dr. Thomas: Yeah. I mean, I think then–and this has happened to me at work, right? Like, I come in low and someone else is high or vice versa. I think then that’s the–I mean, that’s the point of it, right? It’s a moment of pause to figure out what do you need to put aside or do you need to get off this call or how can I support you and give that person who’s lower an opportunity to either just share or not or articulate more. I just think it’s a great window into “How can we work together towards whatever it is that we need to achieve?” And if now’s not the time, fair. You know? We gotta go and come back together when we’re both in the right space. I think that happens all the time, we just don’t often put numbers to it, right?

Zach: I agree, I agree. So look, that actually is a really good segue for us to get into this. Like, this pandemic, it continues to expose and exacerbate all types of inequities, from social to governmental and of course workplace, just all across the board, and I’ll tell you, frankly it just feels overwhelming for me to think about holistically, let alone try to address, and so I’m really curious about just, like, considering your role with Upwork, I’d love to hear how your perspective and focuses have shifted as this pandemic has continued, and considering your level within Upwork and, like, the organizational power that you wield by way of your level, I’d love to hear about how power and influence has shaped your praxis.

Dr. Thomas: Yeah. Whoo, this could take the whole hour, which, you know, happy, happy to unpack it for that long, ’cause it’s deep. It’s deep and very real. Like, the quickest answer for me is not that much has actually changed about the objectives that we set out to achieve for this year. How we go about them certainly has had to stay agile and nimble, but in the work that I do that’s always the case. I always like to be super responsive to context and not get so [prescriptive?] about how we execute but to kind of keep our eyes on the prize, and so from my personal vantage point, I–especially during the beginning days of this–have never felt more critical than I do right now. You know, I think there’s so many external conversations and great thought leaders who have articulated this better, what this crisis has really done, like most crises, is magnify fractures, gaps, inequities, that already existed, and so I’ve used this really as an opening to accelerate my platform and the work that I’m doing for marginalized folks at our company. So just to dig into it, you know, I did a couple of tactical things once it became clear to me that, you know, “This is serious. This is not the flu. This is gonna change everyone’s lives forever,” and I don’t think that’s an overstatement. So once that reality sort of set in, the first thing I did was I revisited these operating principles that I had crafted when I started at Upwork. So I joined the company in December of 2019. I’m only about weeks in, and there’s been a lot of change since then, internally and obviously externally, but as a team of one and as the first DIB leader in our organization, I thought it was really important for me to just get anchored on what [?] and, you know, use that decision framework for really [advertising?] how I [fell?] in my role. I think, especially when a role like this is new or especially when someone comes in with a multi-disciplinary background [or] a very strategic lens, folks don’t necessarily know what the role is and they kind of fill in their own blanks and make their own stories. So that was important to me, and I revisited those once we started quarantining just to make sure that they were evergreen and [stood up?] in this crisis, and they did, thankfully, and I can put [?] on my name. There’s only four, and everything we do is, you know, it’s systemic, so #1 is account for the systems and structures we’re operating in, and that’s, you know, systems and structures within our company and certainly externally as well. So that’s #1, definitely holds true today. #2 is everything we do is tailored to the most specific population or the most specific point in the employee experience as possible, and so it kind of goes back to how you introduce the podcast, which is it’s basically about centering. We have to get specific. We have to get articulate and discrete about what problem we’re trying to solve or what opportunity we’re trying to seize, and certainly during public times that’s been really critical, and I think that principle holds up. The third is active. So I really wanted to mark that for myself and for others. You know, there’s no passive way to do this work. Like, we’re gonna have to change some things, and, you know, I think that’s intuitive, but also [?] to declare. And then the fourth thing which is super critical for me, and this is where I see a lot of DIBs or DEI, whatever acronym you want to use, professionals flounder a little bit, is being pragmatic and being compelling and cohesive and telling, you know, one story that folks can get behind that also makes sense in the context of the day-to-day decisions and work that they’re doing, and I think too often DIBs work kind of exists in a bit of a vacuum, right? It’s a little bit of a tag-along or an extra-curricular, and I think that’s the piece, you know, during corona times, that I’ve had to really get critical, even more so with myself, about “[?],” right? Like, do people have the capacity for this new thing or this new structure or this new effort and just really kind of giving grace to the folks who have to carry forward on the strategies, who have to, you know, change their behaviors, because it’s a lot to ask even in the best of times, and I want to push and, again, lean into this comfort, but also be gracious with the fact that folks are dealing with a lot right now. So that’s one of the things I did, was just, like, double-check on the way that we’re going about this work. So relevant during this time. Another thing was just re-prioritizing some of those actual objectives. There were just, like, a couple that, even before corona, were nicer to have, but now it’s clear that this is not the year to be working on the frills. It’s really–we gotta stick to the essentials in terms of our strategic goals. And then the last thing I’ll quickly say is I actually really leveraged the fact that it seems like most folks are becoming kind of armchair experts in academiology these days, right? Like, I’m learning more, more about viruses and how they spread, and I think there’s some really interesting–and if I thought about it hard enough there could be a poem out of this, but, you know, I think there’s some really interesting overlays between what we’re seeing with the virus [Emory makes some noise] and how I think about people and the fact that–hey, Emory! The fact that we are all connected, we’re all inter-dependent, and we need to center the most vulnerable. I think, as a society, that’s becoming more and more clear, just with the true facts that are coming out from COVID, but it also I think has been what activists and DIBs practitioners have been saying for, you know, decades, and so I think, at least in my company, it sort of seems like there’s this window of opportunity to seize on this understanding of centering and equity and disproportionate impact that folks are getting externally and [?] that same framework and understanding through the work that I do internally. I just think folks are grasping it a little bit more easily now than they might have been before this. So that, for me, has been exciting.

Zach: That’s awesome. And yes, hello, Emory. But no, you’re absolutely right. [laughs] You know, what I find curious about this time, or intriguing even, is that because of the real impacts that this pandemic is having with folks that look like us and that don’t look like us and the frustrations that come along with that, it’s creating avenues for people to have even more frank conversations and to really kind of, like, get past some of the jargon and, like, these super long monologues about whatever and really get into, “No, how can we actually create impact and change and help? Because there are people who actively need help,” and I think that’s–and I try to be, like, a silver lining type of person, so, like, that’s–so I would say that is something that is a positive out of all of this. I do think also, to your point around DEI practitioners, I do think that there’s a bit of a gap when it comes to, “Okay, how do we transition from–” And I’ve talked about this with some other folks in the past. I think we’re now doing a decent job of, like, talking about the historicity of oppression, or we’ll talk about systemic inequities in, like, these very, like, high level systems that almost seem–like, we speak about them almost, like, in the abstract, right? So we’ll say, like, “Well, you know, black men, they have disproportionate–they’re targeted by police and da-da-da,” and it’s like, “Okay, that’s true,” and I’m not being dismissive of that. “Let’s talk a little bit more about the systemic inequities in your workplace though,” right? Like, “How can we transition these conversations to be a bit more practical and targeted to the reality of your employees?” And, like, that’s–and I get why, you know, there’s a variety of reasons why we don’t necessarily have those conversations when I don’t think we necessarily know how, but then two, like, it’s increasingly uncomfortable to have conversations about actual power in your workplace, because then we start looking at individuals, right?

Dr. Thomas: Yeah. I mean, it’s hard, or maybe impossible, not to take, you know, a conversation about power and privilege personally, but at the same time I think where I’ve seen the most effective work, where I’ve done the most effective work, is where we actually sort of meet somewhere in the middle. It’s about what roles or positions do we hold, how are those products of a greater societal system, and given the seat we’re in–it’s not really about us. I think it’s really about the position. But given that we fill it, you know, what is our responsibility? To disrupt things that before now we weren’t aware, you know, we were products of, or now that we are we realize we have a bit of an urgency to leave a legacy or leave things better than where we found them, and I think that’s where the activation can happen. That’s where we can get [?] without guilting people, right? Without making them defensive. I think it’s just the reality of, “Oh, this is all by design, and we’re sort of products of this greater architecture. So now what are we gonna do about it?” And if we’re not gonna do anything, that’s fine too, but then we should stop talking about it. Right? So, like, that’s fine. I don’t–[laughs] I want to be clear that I don’t judge or begrudge that. It’s fine. You know, companies and leaders can make those choices, but then stop talking about it. That’s where–right?

Zach: Yes. That’s my rub too. At a certain point it’s like, “Look, I’m tired of us talking about diversity being our strength and there not being anybody that looks like me that actually has any type of authority or power.” You know, “I’m tired of us always–” Like, not shoehorning in, because no disrespect. We talk about gender in these very, like, binary, exclusionary ways without being intersectional at all with race or sexual identity. We talk about sexual identity in these binary ways without including race. We ignore any race trans identities, particularly trans black female identities. So, like, if we’re gonna do this, let’s do it. If we’re not gonna do it, let’s not. It’s 2020. Rona or no rona, let’s just–let’s just be honest. [both laugh]

Dr. Thomas: I agree. I mean, you know, that’s where folks get disillusioned. That’s where, you know, when the word doesn’t match the deed, it reads as inauthentic because it frankly is, and I think most companies or leaders within them would be honestly better served to talk a little less about diversity, about inclusion, about equity, [then keep on?], or to raise–you know, raise the bar for themselves, but this weird in-between is just not working, right? It’s not working. It’s frustrating the folks who are most impacted. And then we see the results, which is very minimal quantitative gains when it comes to actual representation within the workforce. So these things all [?] together. They all relate, so yeah.

Zach: They do. Now this is me going off the chart, but it just popped in my–not popped in my head, ’cause I think about it a lot, but we didn’t talk about it for this interview. We gotta have you back, Erin, ’cause I really want to talk about in group, out group dynamics and the pressures that marginalized people in positions of authority have to, like, toe the line in that regard or how much they push against to then create inclusive workplaces for people who look like them. ‘Cause, like–no, and I recognize that’s a big topic, but, like, I just want to say this ’cause it’s on the top of my heart and my mind. Like, I’ve noticed–and I’ve had these conversations, like, with black folks, like, off the record, right? So, like, in consulting, you know, there’s all these different tracks of leadership, and, you know, the highest up is typically managing director or partner, and I’ve talked to some black partners who I really respect and everything, and I’m like, “Look, how many of you do you meet?” ‘Cause the people that I talk to, like, they’re with it. Like, they’re conscious. They genuinely care. They try to use their access, power and privilege, relative power and privilege, to help other folks that look like them–and I’m talking, like, two people, right? [both laugh] And I asked them like, “Yo, what’s going on? Like, why are the rest of y’all a bunch of Clarence Thomases up here? Like, what is this?” And so we had this whole frank discussion about it, but I really want to have you back on, because, like–I don’t know. I feel like you and I could have that conversation, but I want to have it because, like–and I had this very… it was not uncomfortable. Wait, let’s pause. Everybody stop, everybody. Y’all should know by now. This is, like–we’re a couple hundred episodes in, hundreds of episodes in actually of Living Corporate. Y’all know I enjoy awkward conversations, so this exchange I’m about to explain to y’all was not awkward for me. It was awkward for them, okay? It was not awkward for me. So, you know, I had this conversation, and–[Emory makes noise] Oh, goodness, my daughter is loud. Hey, y’all. Y’all, check it out. Y’all hear these vocals by Emory. Don’t play. No labels, but, you know, we’ll make a SoundCloud soon. So anyway, I was talking to this person and I was like, “Look, the reality is the folks in power only let a certain amount of us in these spaces, okay, and when you see us in these spaces high up, like, to find somebody that looks like us in those spaces who genuinely care, who are not closing doors behind and who are speaking truth to power–” Again, I’m not asking you to come show up in a Kunta Kinte shirt. I’m just saying if you could just–[Dr. Thomas laughs] Okay? If you could just, you know, act like you’re black, act like you recognize, you know, experiences. To find those types of people, it’s like finding a unicorn with gold teeth, you know what I mean? It’s crazy.

Dr. Thomas: Yeah, and it’s hard for me to speak to personally simply because my role is diversity, right? [both laugh] I’m not here as a [?] professional, I am a diversity expert and researcher. So that’s, I guess, a privilege if you will that I hold as a leader in my company, and I recognize that. It was true in my last role too. I was in a consulting firm, and I was on the leadership team, but we were a diversity consulting firm, right? And so even in there you see some of that where, yeah, I had to really reconcile with the fact that I was doing this work and certainly had more latitude to, you know, speak that truth to power than I would if I were in another profession, and at the same time even I find myself vigilant, of course, and protective, of course, of how much is too much, you know? Where do I strike that balance of advocating in ways that people can hear versus that active, you know, operating principle that I called out earlier, you know, [?] folks that healthy discomfort. It’s tough. It’s a whole level of calculus that I have become I think decent at. I think also though I always–and, you know, we should talk about this another time because we can go real deep into this, right? I always view this dance of, like, on the one hand, any professional–especially any leader–is context switching and code switching all the time, right? Like, that is effective leadership, right? That’s effective, but yet when you’re a person of color, when you are black–which I can speak to–when you’re brown, I think it creates some compunction of, like, “How much of this is playing the game that anyone would play and how much of this is selling out?” And I don’t have an answer. I think everyone has their own barometer for that, but it’s something I challenge myself on all the time. Like, “What of this feels like me and what of this feels like I’m becoming complicit in something that I don’t subscribe to?” And, you know, sometimes I can’t really codify when I’m feeling uncomfortable, but I know what I’m feeling, and that’s when I have to really check myself and really examine if how I’m showing up or what I’m sharing or advocating is really serving my key audience, which is our marginalized folks at our company.

Zach: Yo, so thank you for real. Sound Man, put a little round of applause in here for Erin answering this question off the fly, ’cause we did a pre-production. This was not part of the questions, but it was just something on top of my mind. Thank you so much. Now, look, let’s get into this though, because we’re just now really at the top of the conversation we planned on having. So look, at the time of us recording this, over 32 million folks have applied for unemployment benefits. At the same time, many companies are trying to retain their employees and keep them engaged in new working environments. I mean, there’s even a lot of unofficial conversations happening on companies having pressure to not let go of too many minority employees in the name of just optics and potential legal ramifications. I’m curious, can we talk about this dynamic [?] where tensions may be, particularly for black and brown employees.

Dr. Thomas: Sure. I mean, when I hear this question I’m really thinking about it as what are black and brown workers maybe thinking, feeling, [?] with individually if they are still employed, and I think I’ve seen both–at Upwork it’s certainly [?] as well, ’cause obviously I consume research, I consume, you know, thought leadership externally, and I think there’s a picture that’s sort of forming for me in my head, which is there’s a range I think of emotional reactions for folks who are still employed, and I think at its best folks are feeling really grateful of course. Right? It’s sort of–going back to operating on a scale of 1 to 10, it’s, like, yeah, a very compartmentalized 1 to 10, but, like, we’re grateful for the blessings we have, and I think certainly that is true for folks who are in jobs with fair pay and fair benefits. They want to give their all to their employers because their circumstances could be so much worse. And I think especially in, you know, people work, in mission-driven organizations and purposeful organizations, that’s incredibly true, you know? I’m seeing more and more come out, for instance, among mental health professionals who are burning out ’cause they’re just giving it all. And I think, you know, in normal times it’s hard to strike that balance of taking care of others versus yourself, and I think especially now, if folks are lucky to still have some semblance of job security, they’re giving a lot, and they’re very grateful. I think, towards the more extreme ends of this spectrum of reactions, I’m also seeing certainly some guilt, some comparative guilt, you know, around–there are folks out there who are on the front lines, who are essential workers, who have lost their jobs, and so “Maybe I’m not feeling great about what I’m doing or where I am, but, like, how could I complain?” Right? Like, “How can I explain when–maybe things aren’t ideal, but I have so much,” and so that’s where I start to get–yeah, I get a little nervous about that, but I understand it, right? Like, you won’t want to rock the boat right now when employment is so precarious. I think there is, you know, on this extreme end of the spectrum, a bit of grief happening, just–obviously black and brown folks are more likely to have people around them succumbing to this virus, falling ill, being unemployed themselves, and so, you know, folks are at work but breathing different losses that some of their counterparts may not be breathing as directly. And then there’s backdrop of fear. Like, even if you feel secure in your job for now, this whole situation is obviously unprecedented. We don’t know what will happen to the economy, we don’t know what will happen to our companies. And again, the research shows that black and brown folks, and women, are the first to get furloughed, to get laid off, to your point, and we know in secure times black and brown folks are more heavily scrutinized, and I think folks who are still working feel a microscope that may or may not be on them, but it’s impossible not to be vigilant about if you’re gonna make it out of here with the job you went into this crisis with and if that job is actually the right job for you or if you’re feeling beholden to, you know, a vulnerable time in your life. I think it’s a very confusing time, but it all goes back to what we were talking about earlier, which is that it’s just magnifying some of the sentiments that folks are always feeling. I think there’s an overlay of, like, true uncertainty that is pressing, but I think folks are really trying to just get through the day, trying to keep the jobs they have, and, you know, trying not to encounter some of the secondary traumas that come when you lose that job, that security that you have in place. So I’m seeing a whole swirl of things, and the way they look to me basically is people are tired. They are exhausted. They are burning out and, you know, I think they’re taking care of themselves a little less than they used to because it feels a little risky to do that.

Zach: You segued really well into my next question about, like, black and brown employees and their experience, and it’s funny because I was talking to a colleague about this, talking to a workplace colleague about, like, my own experiences, and I was telling him about, like, you know, “I’ve had some stresses because I’ve had some friends who almost fell victim to COVID-19,” and, you know, they recovered, you know, but I also have acquaintances whose family members have passed, right? So you’re right, like, what’s on my mind and the stresses and the drama is–just what’s on my mind is different throughout the day, or maybe it’s just a little more real. Let me not say that other folks–’cause there have been white folks dying from the coronavirus too. So it’s like, you know, not about trying to dismiss one to uplift the other. It’s just like, “Okay, this is real for you, and it’s even more real for me.” And so I’m curious, like, you know, can we talk a little bit about what organizations can do during this time to at the very least reduce harm for their black and brown employees?

Dr. Thomas: For sure. I think, you know, first I want to say 1. thank goodness for your friends who have recovered, and 2. I’m very sorry for the losses that are close to you, and to your point, I’m sorry for that for everybody. This is–you know, the backdrop to all of this is just… it’s really hard to fathom honestly. It’s hard for me to, like, wrap my head around the devastation this has caused, and it’s just–it’s so painful, and I’m sorry that everyone is going through this in some way, ’cause everyone is affected and is going to be in some way by the physical toll that this is taking on people. To that point, you know, I think there’s a few things that orgs can do kind of from the top down. I think there’s also things certainly that any individual colleague or manager can do for the folks around them, but I’ll talk about this on a couple of levels. Sidebar, I always think of the Nick Jonas song “Levels” whenever I’m thinking about how to approach this work.

Zach: Now, hold on, what is the Nick Jonas song–’cause see, the only song I know by Nick Jonas is that “I still get jealous–” You know what I’m saying? “[continues singing].”

Dr. Thomas: It’s about–I’m trying to think of how it goes. It’s about “love has levels.” “Levels, levels.” I don’t know the words.

Zach: Come on, Erin. Come on. I hear you with the vocals.

Dr. Thomas: I know. I gotta find it, but I like him, and I know he has a song called Levels, and I always think about it. It’s like, “Oh, levels, take me higher–” I don’t know. Levels take me higher. I don’t know. It’s a terrible song.

Zach: It’s a terrible song? Okay. Did he have a black choir in the background? [both laugh] Yo, when Nick Jonas came out there, boy, he came out there and they was like, “I still get jealoous.” I was like, “What is going on? Jesus ain’t got nothing to do with this.” I mean, he’s a jealous guy. Anyway, moving forward… [both laughing]

Dr. Thomas: I’m gonna have to find it, I’m gonna have to sing it and just send you a little audio clip, ’cause I can’t even remember the tune, ’cause it’s not a memorable song. Love you, Nick.

Zach: Okay. [laughs]

Dr. Thomas: You know? From the top down, companies, and really I’m talking about leaders, people leaders, diversity leaders, can take care to do a few things. One is–and I saw this during the earlier days of people sheltering in place. I think it’s leveled out maybe a bit, at least from my vantage point, but in the beginning there was a lot of corporate messaging–and I think you even see this still in commercials–of, you know, “We’re all in this together,” and on its face, cool, cool, cool. Like, right, you want to build camaraderie, you want to cohere folks around a shared sense of community, but if you beat that drum a little too long, especially within your company, I think it can kind of err to the side of being colorblind, right, and really minimizing the disproportionate strain that there actually is on employees of color and on black and brown folks. So I think striking that balance of certainly we’re all in this together, and also there are distinct experiences that we know folks are grappling with. It’s an important sort of dual approach to make sure that your folks who are black and brown know that they’re seen, know that they’re recognized for their unique experiences through this and the unique impacts that they’re encountering. So that’s one thing, just sort of take that multicultural lens to those company communications that you’re sending out. I think another thing is, you know, wherever you can creating space for employees to uncover and share more about their specific experiences. So, you know, we did this back in April at Upwork. We partnered with Michelle Kim, who I know is a friend of the pod.

Zach: Come on. What’s up, Michelle J. Kim? Shout-out to Awaken Co. What’s up? [imitating air horns]

Dr. Thomas: [joins in, Zach laughs] She’s awesome, and we sort of co-facilitated I think a 75-minute conversation with leaders of our Asian ERG(s)–and this is before the data about [?] were coming out with regards to black and brown folks, and the conversation was mostly around–in terms of the media–anti-Asian bias and discrimination and racism, so we seized on the timeliness of that conversation and built out, you know, a virtual forum for our employees to share what they were concerned about, what they were hearing in their day-to-day lives and interactions, and to scale out from that, from those stories to give more context to, you know, why are we seeing this, what is this. This is not unique to this moment in time. This is, you know, a pattern repeating, and really come from a place of urgency to educate our folks a little bit more about historical context and why it matters now and certainly what they can do to disrupt and call out bias in themselves and discriminations they’re seeing externally. A third thing is certainly around mental health and benefits and resources to aid folks, you know, who are experiencing trauma and grief. And I don’t think this just has to be if you’ve lost someone close to me. I think in general folks are really struggling obviously with anxiety and insomnia, and there’s data coming in on that, and so making sure that your company has the right level and amount of bereavement and [leave?] policies, but also just coaching and support with your EAP if you have one or your [?] and getting them at least to a basic level [?] of providing that 1:1 support for folks and hopefully referring them out to medical providers if they need, you know, more professional coaching. And then the last thing, you know, is related to what you were saying about terminations and lay-offs and all that. Every company should be auditing the decisions they’re making this time when it comes to furloughs and risks, making sure that they’re looking at that through an equity lens, making sure that they’re not just focusing on people’s kind of positions in the company or tenure, because black and brown folks tend to sit lower in the org and tend to be earlier in their tenure, so really taking a performance-based approach to that analysis can be helpful in getting out of that sort of hamster wheel of, you know, first in first out when it comes to black and brown folks. So those are, you know, top-down, structural considerations that companies can be taking every day. I think on the ground, peers and managers can be doing some of what we’ve already role modeled in this conversation. Check in with people, my goodness. Just think about who you haven’t spoken to in a while. Think about who you might normally pass at, you know, the water cooler or the coffee station, and if you haven’t chatted with that person 1:1 in a minute, you know, Slack them, ping them, whatever you’ve got in terms of internal messaging systems, call them, pick up the phone and check in. Just see how people are doing, and make sure you create, you know, space to actually hear their answer and to actually respond. So, you know, as opposed to the normal “How’s it going?” Like, really ask the question and really wait for the answer and be with that person with whatever they share, you know? I think it’s really about those personal connections that we probably took for granted when we were back in an office setting, for those of us who were in offices, and that are harder to actualize now, right? Like, we’re all home. We’re all behind screens, and so there is no organic water cooler conversation. That means we have to make a little bit more effort to reach out to folks and to show them that we care about them, that we’re connected to them and that we’re a resource, or that the company has resources, for them whenever they need.

Zach: I love it, I love it. Now, Erin, you know that we’re about real talk in a corporate world like I said at the top of the show. For the executive leader to this and perhaps rolling their eyes or maybe, like, speed listening and being like, “Yeah, yeah, yeah, I know this. Yeah, yeah, yeah,” like, you know, just kind of being dismissive as to the gravity of this and why this matters. Why should folks have an inclusive and equitable lens during this time, and then what’s the potential fallout in your mind if they don’t?

Dr. Thomas: I have so many reactions to this question. I think, first, if someone’s rolling their eyes to this, which… yeah, could be true, I’ll just, like, emphatically say that’s not my key audience. Like, I’m just not–you know, I’m really not, and I’m just not. That’s not my sweet spot. There were times earlier in my career where that was, where I found it fun to really push the business case for equity, business case for diversity. I am not interested in that anymore, and thankfully I’m in an org where I don’t have to do that. Like, kudos to those of you who are doing that. Frankly, for me personally, that’s ineffective, right? You know, people do not make decisions based on facts or data. So, you know, I could stand here and talk about the research that’s been done. You know, Great Place to Work just did a study around [?], right, and they showed that those who focused on inclusion did better during the recession and saw more returns. So, like, I could share all those stats and all that, but it doesn’t matter. Like, if you’re rolling your eyes, if you are asking why or if, like, it’s probably not gonna happen for you. Just call it, you know–because you can Google it, you can ask Siri, you can ask Jeeves, you can do whatever you want to do, but, like–

Zach: [laughing] Not ask Jeeves.

Dr. Thomas: [laughing] You can go back to Jeeves if you have to, but my point is that this is not how people make decisions. People make decisions emotionally. They do what they want to do and then they rationalize it later. That is a fact.

Zach: That is a fact.

Dr. Thomas: You know, it is. And that’s science. [laughs] And so if you’re not in any way emotionally inclined to care, nothing I say, no data point is gonna make you care. So I think that’s one thing. Like, I am impatient and frankly, especially with, you know, decades of research that I think has really caught on in industry, we’re just past the point of denying the value proposition of diversity. I think it wastes calories. I think it distracts from the meaningful question, which is, like, how we can go about it during this time or, you know, what we should be prioritizing. I think those are fair questions, but if you’re, for whatever strange reason, listening to this podcast and rolling your eyes, like, I don’t have time for it. I just don’t. I don’t. And already that was too much time explaining how I don’t have time for it. So that’s my quick reaction to that. [both laughing] I think those who are kind of, you know, struggling with how to go about this or where to maybe invest less or more, that’s incredibly fair. I think that is incredibly challenging. So what I would say there is just–it goes back to what we talking about earlier. I mean, this is life and death, right? It does not get more real in terms of a call to action than this moment in time, and I think every leader should sit themselves down and critically examine what legacy they want to leave, you know? This is the time for companies to demonstrate what living values, living their values actually looks like. It’s their time to pressure test, you know, different mantras that companies love to share around, you know, authentic selves at work, or “Bring your whole selves to work,” because you saying–it goes back to what we were talking about earlier. You’re saying those things… well, here’s your moment. Here’s your moment to [know?] what it really means, and that’s true at the company level, it’s true at that personal level. Hopefully you’re inclined to want to dig more deeply into what actualizing on your commitments actually could mean right now, and I think that’s the place to get really serious about where are the potential gaps between what you’re saying and doing. And as we said earlier, you know, if you realize “Huh, even in these most dire circumstances, we’re maybe not really ready to make the investment that we might need to actually move the needle or create the environment that our people need.” Okay. That’s a tough conclusion to come to, but okay.

Zach: That’s responsible though, right?

Dr. Thomas: Right. Yeah. I mean, and then okay, well, then you have to communicate that back, but if you have been talking a game for a while and are realizing you want to step it up, that’s amazing, and I think from there what you can be doing is really leveraging external leaders–I mean, there’s a lot of information, tools that are free. You could certainly and should be always leveraging your internal employees or workers however they want to be leveraged to help you reveal your blind spots. But this is it. Like, this is the moment, and hopefully orgs will really step it up and leave a footprint that I think can last for generations. You know, what companies do now I think is going to reset how people see them in the public light, how people see them as an employer of choice or not, and so it’s a critical kind of come to Jesus moment hopefully for leaders and orgs to double down or to de-emphasize the things that we’ve been talking about for a while.

Zach: Yo. Man, I mean this has just been an incredible conversation. I would be remiss not to drop a Flex bomb right here, and then also some air horns, put ’em in right here. Okay, there we go. Erin, before we let you go–before Emory and I, excuse me, let you go, any parting words or shout-outs? I know you’ve been dropping wild gems this entire time, but I just want to give you one last–you know, where they can find you, what you’re excited about with Upwork, anything. Give you time to plug.

Dr. Thomas: Oh, goodness. Okay, I did not prepare for this. I have so many people to thank. I would say find me on Twitter. That’s it. Please don’t try to find me on LinkedIn. I don’t respond on LinkedIn. Real talk. It’s just too cluttered. So ErinLThomasPhD is my Twitter handle. I would say check out Upwork. I have been a lot of places. I have led diversity within two other organizations before now. I’ve been an expert consultant. I’ve seen a lot of what companies are doing, and I wouldn’t be at Upwork if I weren’t rabidly passionate about what we’re doing and about all of the magic ingredients that attracted me to our company. So I’d love for folks to check us out. Come work with us. We’re a great, amazing, purposeful company doing great work, with cool leaders like me, so come on through.

Zach: I mean, this is the best ad I could imagine. [both laugh] All right, y’all, you know what it is. We’re having real talk in a corporate world. I’m saying it, like, three times this time, but you know we amplify and center marginalized, underappreciated, underrepresented, undersupported, underestimated voices at work, and look, you can check us out anywhere, okay? Look, we’re all over Barack Obama’s internet. You just Google Living Corporate, okay? We’re gonna pop up. We’re there, okay? We’re all over. Check us out on Twitter @LivingCorp_Pod, @LivingCorporate on Instagram. Shoot, if you old school and you’re like, “Nah, Zach. I gotta go in the browser and type in the domain like a true OG,” then I’ma say, “Okay, cool,” and I’ma tell you www.living-corporate.com, please say the dash, or livingcorporate.co, livingcorporate.us, livingcorporate.tv, livingcorporate.org, livingcorporate.net. We got all of the Living Corporates except livingcorporate.com, so if you type in livingcorporate.com and Living Corporate does not pop up do not be mad at me, ’cause I told you already we don’t got that one. We got all the other livingcorporates, or living-corporate.com–please say the dash, all right? You can also email us at livingcorporatepodcast@gmail.com. You can also DM us, okay? DMs are wide open. We are not afraid of the random DM. Just hit us up. We’ll make sure we hit you back. If you have a listener letter, you know, you could submit it right there. We’ll answer it on the show. We got a decent number. We try to get to a critical mass so we can answer a few, and then we kind of make that an episode. Just so y’all you know. It’s, like, a peek behind the curtain. Until next time, y’all. This has been Zach, and you’ve been listenimg to Dr. Erin Thomas of Upwork. Me and Emory are gonna catch y’all later. Emory, you got anything to say? [Emory’s silent] Nope? All right, y’all. Peace.

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