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Mentoring relationship focuses on racial equality in the workplace

  • Posted on January 18, 2021
  • Estimated reading time 6 minutes

When George Floyd was murdered by police on May 25, 2020, it set off protests around the world, but it also changed the conversation about racism. People felt they could be honest and have raw discussions about a topic they may have previously avoided. We saw those kinds of conversations occur within our own company.

It was also a catalyst for a mentoring (and reverse mentoring) relationship between two Avanade marketers: Stella Goulet, chief marketing officer, who is white, and Renée John, manager of alliance marketing, who is Black. In this conversation, Stella and Renée talk about what they’ve learned from each other about racism in the workplace. In subsequent posts, they’ll dig deeper into topics like microaggressions and intersectionality.

How did you start your mentoring relationship and what did you want to achieve?

Stella: After the murder of George Floyd, hearing the racist experiences shared at our company’s town halls by some of our courageous colleagues was heartrending. As an ally, I felt I had to do more on many levels, but particularly to step up as a mentor. Initially I was a bit uncomfortable approaching Black colleagues directly in case it was unwanted. How do you start a conversation about racism? How do you ask someone if they’d like to engage?

So I asked my HR partner to be an intermediary and I reached out to Renée to talk about what helpful mentoring might look like related to race. Renée was brave enough to put up her hand – and so we set out on a six-month journey where we covered topics such as unconscious bias, microaggressions, intersectionality and the impact of bias on confidence and career.

I had two objectives: I wanted to find a way to help Black colleagues on a more individual basis to find a voice and grow. And I saw an opportunity for reverse mentoring – to help me learn and understand.

Renée: For a long time, the Black community has felt like a pressure cooker about to explode. George Floyd’s death was the straw that broke the camel’s back. Workplaces could no longer ignore the emotional burdens being carried by the Black community nor avoid the workplace and race connection.

Having unadulterated conversations about race in the workplace with someone who is not Black was new for me and initially I had mixed emotions, but it became easier over time as we built trust. Given the nature and touchiness of the topic, it takes a true ally who’s willing to be committed and honest.

It was important to me that Stella initiated the discussion. People at more junior levels don’t always feel that senior executives are accessible, so it was important that the outreach came from her. The mentoring relationship was a way for me to do my part to ensure Avanade maintains an inclusive workplace. I hoped to be able to contribute to meaningful change. And it’s helped me know who my allies are at work; whom I can talk to if I need to.

Pam Maynard, Avanade’s CEO, is a Black woman. How important is that kind of representation in leadership?

Renée: It’s critical to have aspirational North Stars like Pam. It helps demonstrate a company’s culture and values. It shows employees what’s possible. In my experience, white people are more likely to take for granted what’s possible, what they can be, what they can accomplish. It’s different for people of color. You really need to show employees of color that there’s a place for them in senior positions.

Stella: I think it’s particularly important for Black women, who face a double whammy in terms of discrimination. The fact that Pam is committed to being visible, speaking out and encouraging others makes her a leadership role model both inside and outside of Avanade.

What are some of the things you’ve learned and actions you’ve taken as a result of your mentoring experience?

Stella: Discussions with Renée and the questions she asked challenged me to see and understand things differently. Sometimes it wasn’t until I reflected afterwards that I had the biggest insights. After every call I was able to come back and say, “This is what I’ve learned and what I’ve done because of our conversation.”

Sometimes it was seemingly small things, such as how important it is to see professional people with natural Black hairstyles. As CMO, I could immediately get images added to our photo library and content. At other times it was more fundamental, such as understanding that racial discrimination at any point in a Black person’s career may have held them back. It’s important to try to take that into account when hiring and reviewing things such as role, level and compensation.

By the end of this year, I hope that everyone of color on our team will feel comfortable reaching out to me about anything. My goal is to talk with them more about training and development plans and understand their career aspirations. I would strongly encourage other leaders to do the same.

Renée: I know diversity and inclusion is a priority for Stella and that she’s genuinely committed to it, and I appreciate that. In my experience, diversity and inclusion isn’t prioritized by many leaders at most companies or in every department.

Stella has helped me find my voice as a Black professional at a technology company. She’s encouraged me to be more visible in our organization and have confidence about my contributions to our team. And I’ve seen an immediate impact of my influence as a result of Stella’s actions. For example, sharing my perspective on natural hair led her to add those kinds of images to our photo library. Our mentoring relationship has also helped me gain greater visibility into some of our inclusion and diversity initiatives at Avanade. It’s encouraging to know that the company isn’t just giving lip service. There are actions, metrics, reporting and long-term goals around I&D. That’s evidence that the company reflects the same values internally that we talk about externally.

As a member of the leadership team of INSPIRE, Avanade’s Black Employee Network, I look forward to seeing the diversity initiatives that we proposed and which are supported by Avanade leadership come to fruition this year.

What are a few key steps organizations can take to address the topic of racism in the workplace?

Renée:

  • Provide forums for discussion. It’s important to offer opportunities for open and honest dialogue, which can serve as a catalyst for broader discussions and actions about race in the workplace. The incidents of the past year have made people more comfortable talking about the topic, but companies need to provide channels for those conversations. ·
  • Training matters. Cultural change doesn’t come easy but it’s key to achieving racial equality in the workplace. Mandatory training is an important part of shaping workplace culture. At Avanade, we include unconscious bias training as part of our compliance training program.

Stella:

  • Engage with HR and I&D. The role of HR is important; they’re able to act as a go between to help start a conversation on race or mentorship. It’s easier for someone to say no to HR if they aren’t interested in establishing a mentoring relationship. Both HR and I&D can also help provide coaching on these topics.
  • Provide guidance. Conversations about racial inequality in the workplace are hard and people often don’t know where to begin. It’s important that organizations offer guidance around things like conversation starters and understanding the “language” of race. In fact, our I&D team is finalizing a dialogue guide for our leaders. · Look for – and address – your blind spots. Even when you’re doing a lot of things right – being an ally, supporting employee community groups, etc. – it’s easy to miss connections between things happening in the world and people’s experiences in the workplace. Renée has helped me see those connections.

Learn more about Avanade’s approach to Inclusion & Diversity.

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