We are not your diversity tokens

February 19, 2023


This is a picture of my grandfather (all the way on the right) and his pilot class. “He got his pilot diploma but then he couldn’t find a job because he wore glasses”, my aunt told me as I was visiting her and my uncle last November. “I didn’t like him very much, but he was very intelligent”, she added.

I don’t know or remember much about my grandfather. He died when I was around 15 and had a difficult relationship with his 4 children; I rarely got to see him while he was alive. As I was talking with my aunt, I discovered though that my grandfather and I seemed to have a lot in common. We both emigrated for our studies, him from Martinique to Paris, me from Paris to Germany and the UK. We were both interested in and good at multiple fields of study. After he couldn’t get a job as a pilot, he studied industrial design, a field where he was able to find at least short-term employment as far as I know. On my side I studied technical translation but ended up spending little time in the field. While my grandfather struggled to find jobs, I’ve always struggled to keep a job down. I tend to learn things very fast and therefore also get bored very fast if I am not challenged or moved to the next step on the career ladder at the same speed that I learn. For one reason or another (the reason probably being the glass ceiling), moving up in a company has always been impossible for me. So, I ended up doing a lot of lateral moves, jumping from technical translation to machine translation linguistics, from machine translation linguistics to technical writing, and eventually from technical writing to content design. I don’t think I’ve ever had the same job title twice.

Somehow, it is this background and varied set of skills that got me hired at my last place of work. I had a lot of expertise in multiple fields (localization, engineering, product…) and knew how to make the complex simple. They wanted me to teach them best practices and “model [desired] behaviours” in the words of my own manager. In it for me was learning a new field of content writing from them, one I hadn’t had the opportunity to explore yet. It seemed like a good match.  

Things got a little rocky at the very start as I discovered that the company had next to no infrastructure, processes, or documentation at any level, and as a result roles and responsibilities were not clearly defined for anyone working there, despite the company averaging 1,000 employees. It is one thing to be a little messy when you are a start-up with 50 people, it is a completely different type of chaos when a thousand people are working for you, and you are supposed to be a leader in your branch. I pushed back hard on the things I felt were outside of my responsibilities (or my entire team’s responsibilities for that matter) or over which I had no control which led to some misunderstandings with my team.

I saw this as only but a bump at the beginning of the road though as things got better once I clarified expectations for my role with my manager. I also took care of communicating with my team about the way I work and the things I wanted to do for the team to make sure we avoid misunderstandings moving forward. So far, so good. I liked the people and the atmosphere in the company; it really felt like everyone enjoyed working here and the company was on a path to do better. I even started appreciating the chaos because of all the opportunities it was offering me to find and build helpful tools and processes for my team.

And then came my first performance evaluation. A total surprise, the evaluation judged everything that makes me me, from the way I communicate and collaborate down to my needs to work effectively (such as setting boundaries around my time) but contained little feedback about my actual performance or the goals that were set up for me at the start of my employment. None of the things I had accomplished for the team until then were mentioned and even the good feedback about the quality of my work felt backhanded as I could apparently only perform “when the task is clear” (who doesn’t perform better when a task is clear though?). The surprise also came from the fact that according to the evaluation, I was an extremely problematic employee, yet had only heard good feedback from my manager in our weekly 1:1s for 4 months prior to that evaluation. The evaluation also put it entirely on my shoulders to fix perceived slights I had never been made aware of with a range of stakeholders who were not named or even directly quoted “to respect their privacy” according to human resources policy.

Now what I want to talk about is not how the lack of infrastructure I mentioned earlier and of an accountability system in the company led to my employer ultimately failing me during my probation time, but about what inclusivity means in the workplace. See, what I got from that performance evaluation, and the subsequent feedback when I was let go a little over a month later (“You’re not meeting expectations”) is not so much that I was not performing but that I was performing differently from what was expected. The problem was that I did not conform to the informal rules of the company and was even actively changing them (as I had been asked by my manager to do, mind you), and this was making people uncomfortable.

Diversity and inclusion are two different things. Have a look back at this picture of my grandfather and his pilot class. Yes, my grandfather is technically on the picture, the only black man in a pilot class of white men in France in the 40s so you could think of the institution who admitted him as progressive and trying to achieve diversity. But if you look closer, you’ll notice how the classmate next to my grandfather is turning his back on him. How my grandfather seems to be standing next to the group instead of being part of the group. How his body is not even facing in the same direction as his classmates. My grandfather is in the group but is not included in it.

It is not inclusion if you invite people into a space you are unwilling to change. — Dr Muna Abdi

It is one thing to want change, but it is another to create the conditions for change to happen. To achieve diversity in the workplace, you not only need to invite a diverse set of people to the table, but you MUST also make space for them and their differences. This means radically shifting the way you think about what a “normal” or “acceptable” behaviour is. Is the person in front of you behaving in an unacceptable way or just in a way you are not used to? Are you enabling them to do their work in the way you think is the right way or by listening to what they need to perform? But more importantly, are you comfortable being uncomfortable? Because this is what change is: it is inherently uncomfortable, challenging, daunting even. If you do not make space for the discomfort that comes with change, this is what usually happens to the marginalised people you invite in your space:

It is a sad reality that many of us still have to choose between being ourselves in the workplace or losing our job. That we end up quitting or getting fired for doing exactly what was asked of us in the first place. That even the most well-intentioned DEI initiatives end up harming us if not correctly implemented.

Companies, we are not your diversity tokens. Please do better.

Start with the resources I linked in this article: