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Home HR and Marketing How one D&I exec breaks down the fine art of corporate listening

How one D&I exec breaks down the fine art of corporate listening

Randi Bryant wears many hats. The self-proclaimed “badass disrupter” has worked in the human resources, client services and technology lanes and has worked as head of Bryant Consulting Group for the past two decades. She’s a speaker who gives intersectional talks about race and gender in the workplace, and creates diversity-focused resources such as Neversays: 25 Phrases You Should Never Ever Say to Keep Your Job and Friends. She is also, as of June 2021, the new chief diversity officer for business software developer Freshworks.

A common thread throughout Bryant’s work is that speaking up about one’s opinions and perspectives isn’t mutually exclusive with a culture of respect at work. Even companies that value vocal employees can stagnate instead of fostering open, ongoing diversity- and inclusion-focused conversations. 

A May 2021 report by The Wharton School, Moody’s Corporation and DiversityInc suggests that combating that kind of slump is crucial. The study found that on average, 19% of employees feel compelled to speak up about D&I initiatives when there’s positive managerial involvement. Additionally, “internal diversity partners,” such as affinity groups or their sponsors, put employees at ease to speak up. In response, Wharton recommended that managers seek support and resources from company leadership — even those who don’t hold diversity titles. 

Here are Bryant’s tips on fostering a culture of listening.

Editor’s Note: This conversation has been edited for clarity and brevity.

Randi Bryant


HR DIVE: How would you describe the practice of listening to marginalized employees in corporate settings? 

RANDI BRYANT: What does that look like as it should be? Or as it is? 

I find that as it is, companies are oftentimes reactive. They have set up HR departments to essentially problem-solve. 

So when people are not feeling included, if they’re being harassed in some way or improper language is being used, they then go to HR. The focus becomes conflict resolution, instead of creating a place where there is actually communication. 

The biggest issue that exists right now is that [employers] only listen to employees when employees have an issue. Employees are hesitant to complain, because no one wants to get tagged as ‘difficult’ or ‘whiny.’ People will hesitate to even go to HR. So by the time they do, it’s because they’re absolutely at their wit’s end. 

What does listening look like “as it should be?”

Getting away from reacting and getting more focused on actually creating programs where you don’t have some of these issues in the first place. Listening to your input, setting up spaces where employees feel comfortable and safe sharing how they feel. I believe in having anonymous, regular check-ins, but also: setting it up a bit like FreshWorks, where we have [open] conversations regularly. 

Just pick a topic and let people talk. It’s helpful, you know, people getting to know one another and hear other people’s voices. Because it’s not just leadership hearing employees — it’s really employees hearing other employees, and bringing a level of empathy between each other.

Optional Caption

Photo by Ketut Subiyanto from Pexels

That’s interesting to think about: not just conversations flowing up or down, but happening laterally. How do D&I professionals and HR managers foster that kind of environment, where people feel comfortable speaking up about what they’re going through and their discomfort?

Set up social networks within your organization where people can post articles and can have conversations about things that are going on within their own community. I believe that energy is incredibly powerful. Secondly, not just talking when there’s a scheduled survey that you do once a quarter. Bridge an ongoing conversation. 

When employees are able to share how they are feeling, it empowers them. Going back to what I said about people being scared to speak up when they’re having issues and where companies are oftentimes reactive: if employees are with other people that are experiencing the same things, it can be cathartic.

They can decide collectively, ‘How would we most be happy?’ ‘How could this issue be dealt with?’ And they shouldn’t just have to reach out to the leaders. The leaders should be reaching out to them: ‘What’s going on?’ ‘How are you feeling?’

[For example, earlier in June] I had a conversation with a person in Berlin and I said, ‘Tell me, what do you think should be done to celebrate and acknowledge Pride Month?’ I am a diversity and equity specialist, but I am not a part of the LGBTQ community. I’m not, as an ally, going to act as if I’m more knowledgeable. I don’t know what’s going to feel best.

It’s always interesting to me that after [incidents like] George Floyd’s murder, people will develop these plans and there wouldn’t be a black person at all in the development of that… Does anyone see the irony?

But again, setting up spaces where people feel as if they can reach out, communicate, go to [someone] should they need to talk. 

How else would you recommend opening up that dialogue and checking in beyond just that conversation, that speaker series, that report?

When people do surveys, I really encourage them to share the results with everyone. It’s always interesting to me that people have these surveys. I always see [employees ask], ‘Well, whatever happened to the survey?’ It’s almost as if they do a survey to check the box and not to make any active changes. So share what the survey results are and then talk about what we do to improve these results.

Lastly, even when employees become former employees because they decide to move on, there is such value in talking to them. We [could] learn so much if we were to make exit interviews a safe space, where you say, ‘Please tell us where we did not make you feel valued.’ [Because] people will stay when companies make them feel valued. They’ll do everything in their power to stay.

‘Tell us where we could have done better, because we care and we want to continue to get better.’ The conversation doesn’t stop just because an employee has gone.

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