Tackling the fear of saying the wrong thing around EDI

Gareth Hind says progress comes through open, curious and transparent communication

Gareth Hind

Have you ever walked out of a meeting replaying something you’ve said? Would you like to feel more confident when talking about EDI and asking important questions?

You’re not alone. The topic of EDI has rapidly evolved both inside and outside of the workplace and businesses are making moves in the right direction.

Increased resources, investment and focus are certainly things to celebrate, yet there are still a number of barriers for businesses to overcome if they want to be truly inclusive – one of which is the fear of saying the wrong thing.

We celebrated Our Month of Inclusion at First Bus throughout September, so it’s the perfect opportunity to reflect on how businesses can tackle these barriers head-on. And, most importantly, how we can all create a work culture that champions inclusivity, diversity and belonging.

Promoting a culture of curiosity

Curiosity should be part of the fabric of any business – it’s how we learn, grow and connect. 

When questions come from a place of openness and a desire to learn, people are typically happy to share their lived experiences.

Businesses should therefore create environments where employees feel comfortable asking questions and learning from each other’s experiences.

For example, a Getting to Know Diwali session could be run by colleagues to celebrate the upcoming festival. A dedicated time for questions would also provide a platform for employees to increase their knowledge of the holiday.

Active allyship cannot thrive in silence

Storytelling is one of the oldest traditions used to build human connection and one that our ancestors have been doing for centuries. Stories bring bravery, courage, reality and a rawness that other forms of communication often can’t. 

As such, it can be an effective way to humanise conversations around EDI and make them more accessible and relatable for employees. 

This was one of the driving forces behind the 15-part video series we created for First Bus’ Month of Inclusion, with each 60-90 second clip providing insights into a different colleague’s personal journey across many diverse communities.

From ADHD and caring for loved ones to shared parental leave and the LGBTQIA+ experience, these videos helped to educate and connect, while also providing useful advice on how to be effective allies.

Transparency over perfection

For storytelling to be truly leveraged, businesses need to create a culture where transparency and vulnerability are not only valued, but actively encouraged.

Employees need to feel confident not only sharing their stories, but admitting when they’re unsure and want to learn more about an EDI topic. Business leaders should lead by example here by being open about the gaps in their knowledge and taking steps to bridge these through training, research and asking questions.

At First Bus, we’ve also enrolled all our colleagues onto a Celebrating Our Differences inclusion programme. The programme is designed to help improve their knowledge and boost their confidence across eight 45-minute modules.

Vulnerability can also be shown by holding a mirror up to ourselves and questioning any unconscious – or indeed conscious – biases or micro-aggressive behaviours. This can be a confronting but necessary process and one that all employees should be encouraged to do through dedicated training that can help identify and challenge biases. This is not easy to do, but the behavioural shift is often sustained.

Mistakes and failure are not the same

As with these critical reflections, it’s important for businesses to foster an environment where mistakes are not deemed as failures and there is instead a culture of continuous learning and improvement.

If you do find yourself in a situation where you’ve communicated in a way that has caused upset or offence, the important thing to do is acknowledge it, apologise and learn from it.

On the journey of purposeful and active allyship, you may not always get it right, but you must always want to learn and improve.

Embracing the ‘water cooler’ moments 

To steer this continuous learning, we must go beyond the traditional methods of measurement and feedback. Employee surveys and pulse reports like our First Bus census can be extremely valuable, but we mustn’t limit our learning to these quarterly or annual milestones.

We need to authentically listen in real-time and supplement our data-led learning with qualitative conversation – whether that’s listening to a colleague’s concerns during an informal lunch catch-up, or through regular employee resource groups such as our Origins (ethnicity), Progress (LGBTQIA+), Oxygen (wellbeing), Generations (age), Balance (gender) and Enable (disability) inclusion networks. And, perhaps most importantly, we need to act on this listening to drive meaningful change. 

So, I’d like to reinforce that active allyship is based on listening, learning and action. For businesses to accelerate their EDI journey, it’s therefore crucial that we tackle the fear of saying the wrong thing and replace silence with curious, open and transparent conversation.

Gareth Hind is the head of EDI and wellbeing at First Bus