There’s a major cultural and social shift underway compelling organizations to focus on diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging within their workforce. While the benefits and value of a diverse workforce are unquestionable, the path for organizations to get there requires leaders to acknowledge uncomfortable truths. In this episode, APU’s Dr. Linda Ashar talks to Dr. Larry D. Parker, Jr. about his research into outgroups and the steps executive leaders need to take to create an inclusive work environment where employees feel a sense of belonging.
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Linda Ashar: Hello, everyone. This is Linda Ashar, your host for this podcast. Joining me today is Dr. Larry Parker, Department Chair of Logistics, Contracting, and Acquisitions with American Public University’s Dr. Wallace E. Boston School of Business. Dr. Parker has a Ph.D. in Organization and Management. He recently retired as Lieutenant Colonel with a distinguished leadership career in the U.S. Marine Corps.
Diversity and inclusion is a special passion of his work in education and research and as a business consultant, so Dr. Parker brings a wealth of knowledge and experience to our discussion today about diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging. Larry, it’s an honor to be your colleague and have this opportunity to talk with you about this topic. Thank you for your time in this podcast.
Larry D. Parker, Jr.: Linda, I am so excited. I’ve been waiting for this. I really appreciate you having me on with you.
Linda Ashar: It’s a pleasure. It’s an important topic. On June 29th this year, you were the keynote speaker for the second collaborative forum on diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging held by Rio Salado College and American Public University System. For the benefit of our listeners, that forum series is part of an ongoing effort of both institutions to better understand social justice and economic mobility. This topic is going to be a continuing concern, I think, in our society, in politics, and certainly in business and in education.
I’d like to pick up from that keynote and expand today. Larry, you spoke in your keynote about the value of diversity and inclusion, both to the organization, any organization, and the individuals of an organization, so to begin our conversation with all of that being said, what does the phrase “diversity and inclusion” actually mean for the classroom and the workplace? More broadly, I’d like you to explore with us the meaning of “diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging.”
Larry D. Parker, Jr.: Absolutely. This is one of those things, it’s very interesting. Individuals hear the term “diversity” and they immediately just go to race and color of individuals. First, when we talk diversity, it’s just even broader than that. You can look at everything all across the demographics, if we’re talking about gender, sexual orientation, just differences in individuals, and so that’s diversity.
We talk about inclusion. It’s bringing those individuals together within the same organization. Not often do we take a step back and look, that as we gravitate to like-minded people or like individuals that come from similar backgrounds, we often create organizations that are very much the same, all the individuals are the same.
In this globalized economy, in this very connected world, we’re finding that there’s value, just as being good people, but there’s value in having diversity of thought, so we’re bringing individuals and that don’t just look like us, don’t think like us. When I say “us,” just whoever that individual is, just looking to be different, bringing differences together.
As we step to the last statement that you’re referring to, the diversity equity, inclusion, and belonging, there is value in bringing diversity of thought, but we want to make sure that everyone gets an equitable seat at the table in sharing their thoughts and making sure that at least they’re getting heard. So it’s not just an action that’s taken just to placate someone, but they actually are adding value, and then belonging, that they feel valued and that they’re there.
Now, this is not to make light of it, but I give the perfect example of, say, there’s siblings in a family and one sister or brother is going to go off and do whatever they’re going to do and the mother says, “Take your younger brother, take your younger sister.” Now, there’s diversity in the group that’s going out, the younger brother or sister has been included, there’s diversity there.
Now, the belonging, that’s the thing where they’re going to take them, but they may not make them feel like they belong. And so I try to make light of it in that way, to just make people recognize that’s that feeling. You may take your little brother, but he may not feel as welcome, or she may not feel as welcome being in that group. That’s what we want to change. We want to change and make sure that everyone feels included and they feel welcome.
Linda Ashar: Larry, these are very important concepts that we’re talking about. It does create a lot of conversation in various venues. How do you answer those who claim that the talk about these concepts of diversity, equity, inclusion, and so forth, is no more than an overdone “woke” political jargon? I hear that word “woke” a lot.
Larry D. Parker, Jr.: That one makes me smile because really it’s almost a bully in the schoolyard-type of approach to really hijacking someone else’s jargon and using it against them. Because really what that is referring to is someone becoming aware, becoming aware of something that is not good for them, or not pleasing to them. Why would someone have a problem with it? Unless there was going to be an exchange of power or someone is going to have to give up something, you typically wouldn’t have a problem with someone becoming enlightened.
If you really look at just the origin real quick, that term, I know in cultural circles that I’ve been around, refers to someone who is awakened from some kind of oppressed state. Those that are “not woke,” if you will, are just going along with things as they would be.
Because of the dynamic culture and the history that we have of civil rights and things, it would be those individuals that just had no problem with it and just went along with being oppressed. And so those individuals that said, “Hey, this isn’t right,” or you can name anything, would it be women’s voting rights or any other kind of issues, pay disparities, any of that, when someone finally says, “Excuse me, I don’t like what’s happening,” those considered amongst those that are aware are saying, “Hey, this person’s woke. This person’s woken up to what’s happening.”
Now, it’s being hijacked, if you will, and being turned around to make it sound as if they’re asking for something unrealistic that they shouldn’t be. And so that’s what I find very interesting about how aggressively someone is trying to use this term.
Linda Ashar: I like your term, of the phrase “hijacking,” because it takes a concept that is meant to be used positively and is spun around to be a pejorative. It’s like a defense mechanism, I suppose, for want of a better way of putting it. Is there a way to respond to that or do we just find another term?
Larry D. Parker, Jr.: Unfortunately, I really take people back to this schoolyard bully-type of mentality. I guess we probably didn’t give as much credit to individuals really being involved in psychological warfare back then because we were children.
But if you think about it, it’s the person who makes the negative comment first and you’re then put on the defensive and it’s like you see the group around. So really the best way to is just to stay the course and continue to stick to the facts, not get emotional, stick to the facts, because that’s all that they’re relying on.
You rarely hear someone talk about “woke” in a negative way and then follow it up with some facts to prove that it’s not. They typically, if you think about it, will say that, and then that’s all they got. That’s all the ammunition they have. They’re making it negative for you to bring it up, but they don’t have anything really to refute it, so stick with the facts. I believe tried and true and staying there will get you to where you need to be.
Linda Ashar: Oh, that’s a good comment. I think from my observations, the hijacking of terms like “woke” or other concepts like those we’re talking about today with diversity and inclusion, highlights how much we can separate ourselves and society and how that separation in turn carries into so much of what we do and our thinking.
I’d like to circle back on that, to how it affects the workplace and education. Both of those are places that occupy a great part of a given person’s day-to-day life, whether they’re at school or at work, they’re likely to be one place or the other, or very much connected to someone who is, such as family. You have done some research about outgroups in organizations. What are outgroups?
Larry D. Parker, Jr.: Well, outgroups are individuals that don’t feel like they’re included in the benefits of an organization or infrastructure that they’ve chosen to be a part of. Whether it be a Boy Scout, Girl Scout troop, any youth group, to some something that’s involved in our profession. It’s typically a group of individuals that have come together for work or something like that and there’s benefit, whether it be social or it is truly, this is how you’re making your living.
There’s typically favorable jobs, favorable tasks, there’s reward systems tied to it, whether it be bonuses or just opportunities that occur. Then, of course, depending on the job, there’s punitive actions and things of that nature.
Individuals in a outgroup can have the perception, now, there’s the existence of the outgroup, because you can legitimately be excluded from some of those things, and that’s where we talk about diversity and inclusion because there’s a group that’s been routinely felt like they’ve been excluded and, or actually excluded.
Well, the outgroup is the same thing. These individuals feel excluded from the organization’s benefits or the group’s benefits and more likely to experience the negatives. That’s what we see and that’s in all throughout society, a person can be in the outgroup of a single individual or a group.
Linda Ashar: How do we get people from prejudice about differences, whether it’s about what you like to eat, or your religion, or your gender, or your race, to tolerance and a respectful curiosity about learning about each other’s differences. And, at the same time, have those who are different from the perceived ingroup not be defensive about that inquiry?
Larry D. Parker, Jr.: That’s a great question because individuals, I’d like to believe that they’re not by nature, just placing individuals in the outgroup and just they’ve either been taught it or just out of ignorance, so just by nature, individuals would want to have peace, if you will.
What it really involves is education. There’s no other way to. Education, not just about the outgroup or those individuals that are perceived to be in the outgroup, because really, you mentioned my research and that was part of it. There were individuals just that perceived to be in the outgroup, so sometimes don’t even have to have individuals excluded from anything, but that tells you the next piece of that information campaign is to make sure individuals know what they’re included or that they are included.
Just getting more to directly to what you’re saying, what individual can do, it’s education. An organization can educate individuals about others, making sure that they’re aware of the value of the richness, the benefits of other cultures. And you have to push people outside of their comfort zone because some individuals will just move in the same space and be aware of the same things over and over again, and so that’s really where it starts, being aware of the good things and also making sure that there’s an information campaign going both ways: This is what I bring to the table, and this is what you can expect from this organization. So an exchange of information.
Linda Ashar: Welcome back. This is Linda Ashar. I’m speaking today with Dr. Larry Parker about diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging in the workplace and in education. Okay. Well, let’s say that I’m a CEO of a mid-size business and I’m concerned about diversity and inclusion and I have a policy. We’ve put a policy in place. I’ve made sure my HR department’s on top of it, all the things that businesses should be doing.
But I’m not comfortable with just having policies in place because we all know those in and of themselves can just gather dust on the shelf. So what do I look for? How do I see if there are perceptions of, whether it’s individuals or groups, being excluded in my workforce?
Larry D. Parker, Jr.: Well, really, it’s recognizing that there is history there. Chances are individuals migrate to comfort zones. I don’t have the study directly or the test case directly coming to mind of when individuals enter a cafeteria and it’s the “I migrate to go sit with my friends or individuals who look like me,” if we were in a very diverse place.
And so you would see, even if everyone is of the same race, and say, there is room full of police officers and a room full of firefighters and they walk in, from all over the country, and they just probably just on uniform alone, start migrating to different areas. Well, just know that that’s going to, again, create groups. So I give that one just as an example of it may not be nefarious or malicious, it’s going to happen.
It’s kind of one of those things, I know you and I talked about the three points that I bring up about acknowledging and taking ownership of it and then taking action. You’re going to acknowledge that this thing exists, this phenomenon exists.
As I said, everybody could be totally diverse in race and gender, but you have firefighters and police officers, or something else like that. Groups can exist. You’re acknowledging it and knowing that you’re going to already have policies in place, which you said, and so we’re going to own it.
That means then it’s also not going to be so special that it becomes awkward to deal with and take action on. What I mean by that is this policy may be one of about a hundred. I don’t know, I’m not a HR professional, but you probably guess that there’s from maternity/paternity leave, there’s tons of policies, but we need to make sure that we normalize hearing each other, making sure that we’re not having any policy that excludes someone.
And then making sure that we take action, that we don’t fall on deaf ears, that we don’t have what we call those “town hall meetings” and everyone gets to voice their concerns and there’s not anyone taking notes and there’s not action that happens afterwards and accountability. That’s the last thing I will say, accountability of what someone gets back and tells you that it’s been resolved, that there’s action that’s taken place.
Linda Ashar: There’s a lot more to this than just being aware, I guess, is what I’m getting at, because you mentioned the people in a cafeteria. I know one thing that happens. I had this years ago with a very large client who had a large segment of Hispanic-speaking people in their workforce, and those individuals who spoke Spanish tended to congregate together at lunchtime and they spoke Spanish together, which bothered people that couldn’t speak Spanish because they assumed they were talking about them, which probably was not the case. I mean, there might have been individual circumstance. People are human, who knows?
But their default assumption was a negative from that situation, when the fact of the matter is lunchtime was probably the one time those folks could get together and socialize. But that very nature of that situation, they worked on it in that company to not have negatives proliferate. It’s an example of how perceived differences create groups insidiously,whether we are aware of it or not. As leaders, we have to be aware of it.
Larry D. Parker, Jr.: It’s one thing that, it’s funny that you mentioned that one about languages, especially in a situation where it doesn’t dictate that I speak a particular language. If the primary language that we’re doing business in is English, as long as I conduct my business in English, that’s fine. But then, as you said, during my lunch period, if I choose to speak any other language that I know, that’s my business.
It’s funny that you mentioned just the default that we have. Unfortunately, as humans, I also occasionally teach a course about communication and how texting and typing or emails, the perceived default reaction is negative when you read someone’s message. That’s why you have to put so much effort into ensuring someone doesn’t take a text or a message email negatively because that’s a default reaction that we have as humans, and so-
Linda Ashar: Thank God for emojis, right?
Larry D. Parker, Jr.:… Exactly, because that really saves. How many times have you read something and could have easily perceived it as negative? Unless you had an emoji or talked to the person you would’ve totally taken that as a negative, “Oh, they’re being very curt,” or, “They’re being very short.”
I did want to share one thing that I found kind of interesting. How much work a bilingual person has to bring to the table to make other people feel comfortable. My very first job in the Marine Corps, I was probably one of the few second lieutenants that had a Japanese employee because I was stationed in Japan and one of my assistants, well, all of them spoke English and Japanese.
And something required me to call her back. I didn’t recognize how much of her world, when she got off work, she flipped the switch and the rest of her world was in Japanese. Her TV shows, her shows, the rest of her life .And we required her to speak English, and so it was interesting.
One day, she just says, “Lt. Parker, my head hurts. I don’t feel like speaking English right now, so you’re going to learn Japanese,” and it was the funniest thing and that’s exactly what I did. One, I wanted to learn the language, but then, it just makes me think about overall the discussion we had.
The bilingual person that has the ability, that’s a gift to be able to speak multiple language, they’re having to work twice as hard, in some cases, just to make you feel comfortable, so I just found that interesting. It was a comical way of me thinking back in how I came to learn some Japanese.
But it’s that reaction that people have these insecurities, you transfer that onto others. We could probably say that about everything. Culturally, we’ve seen things change in the workplace, such as hair requirements, dress requirements, things that just are trying to make others feel comfortable about the differences of others.
Linda Ashar: Well, I’d like to turn these thoughts in another direction about business especially because these principles of diversity and inclusion in the workforce has taken on great interest from, I hate to use the word “millennials” because all of those terms in themselves make groups out of people. But the up-and-coming people looking for jobs in the workforce, especially, and also those coming out of the military going into civilian jobs, are very interested, according to statistics, as to what employers are doing with policies of diversity and inclusion. They’re asking about it. If I’m coming out of the military or school looking for a new job, what am I looking for in a potential employer to see if that employer has an open program about diversity, equity, and inclusion? Because military is another group.
Larry D. Parker, Jr.: Exactly. The one thing I would say is much as we talk negatively sometimes about the impact that social media can have on society, this is a positive, if you will. Everyone in every organization is a part of social media. Just as you learn in some of your business principles that an organization has a place in society, so how it moves through society, you can see through its social media presence, and through its statements that it puts out.
And so as an individual, looking to join an organization, I’m looking for a diversity statement or something within its mission and its objectives or its vision that includes the words “inclusion,” something that has it, because really, it’s such in the forefront of global organizations today. You should be able to find statements of it.
Then this is where social media comes in: You should be able to find evidence of it, things that they’re doing within the community. I’m not saying it advocates one particular organization over another, but there should be evidence. There should be a trail somewhere, whether it be the employee resource groups that have websites and employee research groups for individuals who are not aware of those. Those typically for individuals of like mind or diverse backgrounds or demographics to join together within an organization. An employer may have several. There can be veterans, there could be LGBT, there can be different races of employee resource groups. That’s the evidence you’re looking for.
Linda Ashar: Speaking of military, there’s been progress recently with the military on a more active public statement about diversity inclusion as to LGBT and other diverse groups. Under the Biden administration, there has been a couple of announcements. Do you think that the influence of the military taking that standpoint also has an influence on private sector views on this issue?
Larry D. Parker, Jr.: The one thing that we used to always notice, that there’s millions. If you add up all the servicemembers across all services, there’s millions of us. There are millions of individuals that come from all corners of American society and we would often see it as being almost an experiment. If there was some policy that they just want to see what function in society, military was one place to do it.
There’s positives because there’s respect for military and how the military handles it. There is some great benefits in seeing those policies first enacted there, and although it’s very conservative, but yet it’s in a very disciplined way. Society can really learn because there is a little bit more structure in how it’s implemented and how it’s handled. There’s good and bad that that happens from it.
Linda Ashar: I appreciate your thoughts on it because it struck me. There was some news recently about steps the military was doing. I thought, “I think it’s helpful for a whole society when there’s just that much more about inclusion in a positive way coming from both that side of the government and its operations as well as what it’s telling the private sector it should be doing.”
Larry D. Parker, Jr.: I can really say that the one thing about military, unlike as we see in a number of other things that are happening in society, in the military, you can say something, and say it’s going to happen tomorrow, and it has to happen tomorrow. It’s we’re all wearing left shoes, even though we have a supply of right, we will all be wearing left shoes the next day.
Linda Ashar: What a great statement. I want to reaffirm your three points about organizations on this topic and that’s
“acknowledgment, ownership, and action.” As we wind up our discussion, what can you add to what we’ve been saying? What would you like to leave our listeners with on this podcast?
Larry D. Parker, Jr.: The thing that I would like to leave, these points of acknowledgment, ownership, and action, go so much further than just in the organization. This is something that as a personal approach to a lot of things. Now, I’m not going to say that I’m a counselor or anything else, but I will tell you, if you think about it, if someone is bringing a problem to you, something that they’re hurting, that they’re hurting because of, or something that they have a real concern with, and it could be good or bad, to acknowledge that person, to acknowledge that individual’s feelings on this particular thing, and then to take ownership.
Now, this is probably the biggest part because I’ve seen individuals acknowledge, “Yep. I understand that’s hurting you.” But now, take ownership of your part because we all have our own defense mechanisms that come up, but just to take ownership. “I’m doing this that’s likely causing that,” or, “I’m doing this or not doing something that’s pouring into that or helping that exist, or creating an opportunity for that exists.”
Then action, you’ve got to move. You have to move. For those that are leaders and then those that are individuals that are just assessing how they’re dealing with challenges, especially in the diversity world: acknowledge the other person, acknowledge your feelings, take ownership, and then take action. Got to move, got to move. Otherwise, you can’t expect something to change. Got to move.
Linda Ashar: Great statement. I thank you so much for your time today. Been a great conversation. I think we probably have many aspects of this topic we could take into another podcast, so don’t hide.
Larry D. Parker, Jr.: Oh, I will be here. I look forward to another opportunity to talk with you. It’s been great. Thank you.
Linda Ashar: You have been listening to Dr. Larry Parker about diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging. This is Linda Ashar, your host, thanking you for listening. Please join us again for our other podcasts.