Weekly tips and stories that will help you do your job and make you smile (or groan).
By Jerry Virta August 11, 2022
The importance of DE&I in the workplace
As I start the Zoom call and kick off the very first interview for my podcast, Working with Pride, I’m joined by Jessica Pettitt. Even though it’s barely 6 am in Eureka, California, Pettitt is full of energy and starts by telling me an unfortunate story of how her phone line, cable, and the internet got blown up a few days prio. Pettitt’s quick wit and humorous storytelling light up the screen — I can’t wait to hear more of her anecdotes and share them with our listeners. I check my mic, adjust my collar and click “record.”
First things first: who is Jessica Pettitt? Pettitt has 20 years of experience consulting and educating on diversity and inclusion. She's teaching, coaching, and motivating thousands of people and leaders worldwide. Being a professional comedian, she uses humor and storytelling in her work to command attention and get her message through. Pettitt started her career working in education, primarily doing diversity programs for many colleges and universities. She kept, however, being let go for pointing out how the institution she worked with was not doing a very good job or could do better.
She kept being let go for doing her job.
Pettitt sees this as a positive: it allowed her to do things that she aligned with or that matched her moral compass and her own identities. Having enough power and privilege to get another job and eventually, in 2005, start her own business, to this day, she’s stayed true to herself.
“I am my own boss now. I started my own business doing primarily keynotes and some programming and have grown into more of a consulting or coaching role with clients I've had over a long period of time. And I have three giant rescue mutts that are my staff,” Pettitt laughs.
Native Texan Pettitt was raised to be curious and question her environments instead of just accepting things for how they are. This helped her at a very young age to notice hypocrisy, things that didn't make sense, and rules that weren't enforced equally. It became normalized for her to see what isn’t equitable and challenge people on the “winning side” of these inequities.
In seventh grade, Pettitt stood before her school’s principal and brought up the unequal punishments between boys and girls. She couldn’t understand why boys were spanked and let back to class, whereas girls got detention, missing a whole day of school. This resulted in her becoming the first girl in the state of Texas to receive a spanking as a punishment.
And she hasn’t stopped fighting inequities since.
When asked for advice on speaking out about issues around diversity, equity & inclusion in the workplace, Pettitt emphasizes the importance of self-inventory and realizing one’s privilege, what position one is in, and what identities one currently holds.
“There are some people whose housing, food — basic Maslow's hierarchy of needs — depend on that job. Obviously, I had to pay rent and eat food early in my career. But the likelihood of getting another job made me stand up to power. A lot less risky.
Part of my work now is encouraging people to notice their dominant or privileged identities and do work from those spaces because it's a lot less risky and literally and metaphorically a lot less costly.”
Pettitt challenges everyone to assess before doing things: are you in a position to do this? Often you can fight for something from your places of privilege or create ally-relationships with others who can then fight from their places of privilege for your own subordinated or marginalized identities. This way, everybody can fight for justice together from those places that are a little less life-interrupting.
She reminds us that the more privileged you are, the less likely you are to notice something, whether identity-based, class-based, living experience or power dynamics. “The more in it you are, the less likely you are to notice the surroundings. Therefore, it’s important to stay curious about yourself,” she says.
And if you think about it, doing the best you can with what you've got, some of the time is a very low bar — it seems achievable. You might be able to do the best you can occasionally, every once in a while because it's better than nothing never.
Giving general advice for standing up for yourself and speaking out on diversity, equity & inclusion (DE&I) topics and issues in the workplace is tricky. Pettitt wants to remind everyone that the world and societies are ever-evolving.
“It’s important to remember that history repeats itself. What someone is legally allowed to do now does not mean they will always be legally allowed to do it. What you are not legally allowed to do now doesn't mean you'll always be not allowed to do it,” she says.
“I think that as a species — if I can say that — we're navigating our moral compass and building — thanks to capitalism or other economic systems — value and worth from a moral compass that often gets compromised in exchange for how we attract or accumulate power. Something can be moral and illegal, and something can be immoral and legal,” Pettitt continues.
When asked about the challenges organizations face when actively investing in DE&I initiatives, Pettitt summarizes this in one compelling sentence: “I think the hardest thing for organizations to hear about diversity, equity & inclusion is: “it is too late to do nothing.”
She takes the Covid19 pandemic as an example: When something is seen universally of high importance, impossible suddenly becomes not only possible but attempted with no plan or direction. For reference, people with disabilities or disability advocates have been fighting for the right to work from home and hybrid working for decades. It was all ruled impossible or too expensive. And then, all of a sudden, those accommodations became the norm.
“And what I think is important is that most organizations have not elevated diversity, equity & inclusion, and belonging work to that level of universal importance. It tends to still be in a side committee, a conversation — something that one person, maybe two people are in charge of, but they don't have the social or the financial capital to do anything.”
Can we call these excuses? Is not taking action to drive diversity, equity & inclusion initiatives a matter of not caring enough or being lazy? Pettitt advises that the best first steps are noticing your patterns and listening to the people around you.
In her work, Pettitt uses humor, the great equalizer. She advises, however, to tread lightly with using jokes when talking about DE&I topics.
“I'm a professional comedian. If you're nervous about using humor, then maybe don't lead with that.
I also think it's important to know that part of being a professional comedian is bombing and failing. You have to be able to take responsibility for really offending people because you tried something that you thought might be funny.
If you're not willing to take on that kind of responsibility, monitor your use of humor.”
Pettitt brings up consciously asking questions you don’t know the answers to as the most important tool for creating inclusive (work) environments. Instead of asking mundane questions like “How are you?” or “How’s the weather?”, actively invite to connect.
“It changes how you enter. It changes how you listen, how you engage, and your posture. And if you become an invitation, you're increasing belongingness,” Pettitt explains.
“We already have the skills to fix all of these problems. We just have to utilize them more regularly in the opportunities where we don't. We're responsible for figuring out where we don't use them,” she continues.
Pettitt encourages everyone to listen to the people around them and be honest in sharing: “You can share with me that you’ve had a hard day and what made it hard. You can share it without asking me to fix it. You're asking me to connect, listen, and hold a space.”
And what I think is important is that most organizations have not elevated diversity, equity & inclusion, and belonging work to that level of universal importance. It tends to still be in a side committee, a conversation — something that one person, maybe two people are in charge of, but they don't have the social or the financial capital to do anything.
- Jessica Pettitt
As parting words, Pettitt shares the mantra from her book Good Enough Now:
“I notice I struggle with or get frustrated that I'm not “making better progress faster.” My book is called Good Enough Now. The joke there is, I don't mean like for a surgeon, right? I mean how we're working on ourselves and taking responsibility for ourselves. But the tagline is really important. Every time I do an interview, I want to leave this for the listeners, but I also want it to be a reminder to resonate back in my work.
The definition of Good Enough Now is: doing the best you can with what you've got — some of the time.
And if you think about it, doing the best you can with what you've got, some of the time is a very low bar — it seems achievable. You might be able to do the best you can occasionally, every once in a while, because it's better than nothing never.
So that would be my parting advice to myself and everyone else.”
Let’s talk about it together!
Share your thoughts on LinkedIn using #thecravediscussion This week’s topic: How do you promote diversity, equity & inclusion in your workplace?
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About the author
I’m Foleon’s content governance police and quality gatekeeper. Besides telling people what to do, I enjoy creating written and visual content, wandering in nature, and consuming trash tv.