Bottom up instead of top down – how to successfully establish diversity and inclusion within your company

First awareness, then marketing – establish diversity and inclusion in a company through the power of a focus group

Diversity is now on the agenda for many companies. The Black Lives Matter movement and the death of George Floyd, in particular, have given a lot of impetus to various initiatives since 2020. The social discussion of racist incidents has ensured that not only private individuals but also organisations are taking a stand and working more intensively on the issues of diversity and inclusion. For Aperto, the IBM iX Studio in Berlin, these events were also the impetus to firstly define responsibility as a company in terms of racism and then to devote more attention to the overall issues of diversity and inclusion. In this article, I, Katrin Johl (People Partner at – IBM iX), de-scribe our agency’s path to greater awareness and visibility of these issues. I speak in particular from my practical experience as a moderator and founding member of the company’s internal diversity & inclusion (D&I) focus group.

Racism in your own company?

Diversity and inclusion encompass many groups and concerns (e.g. BIPOC, LGBTQIA+, empowerment of women, people with disabilities, etc.). At IBM iX Berlin, we made the issue of racism the focus of our commitment at the end of 2020. We recognised it as an important and permanently topical issue that we wanted to deal with sensitively and self-critically within the company. To do this, we first had to identify and evaluate the status quo –and remain open to finding and acknowledging grievances and mistakes in the corporate culture. The first step was to find a definition that encompassed all aspects of racism, forming a basis on which we could continue to work. We also asked ourselves these fundamental questions: What exactly does the term racism mean? How does racial discrimination manifest itself? And what adjustments can we make within the agency? The result of this initial assessment: there is of course potential for improvements in our company at both a structural and individual level.

“There is of course potential for improvements in our company at both a structural and individual level.”

Katrin Johl
founding member of the diversity & inclusion focus group

Preparatory work for diversity in a company: start a discussion and involve employees

In order to be able to act effectively as a company both internally and externally, it is necessary for the management to be on board and for them to support and prioritise anti-racism work. This has officially been the case in our agency since2020. What was still missing was a strategy. We needed an honest discussion within the company about where we were and what we wanted to achieve. It was therefore quickly decided to tackle the issue of diversity and inclusion, not top-down from a management level, but rather bottom-up from amongst the employees.

The result: inAugust 2020, after an internal call via our message system Slack, twelve colleagues from different professional disciplines came together and founded the diversity and inclusion, focus group. Everyone was motivated to bring their professional experience and diverse personal backgrounds to the discussion.

First step in working as a focus group: defining the mission and acknowledging emotions

In the beginning, it was a bumpy ride. In the first session, there was a heated discussion about the direction our work should take. There were very different expectations of the focus group, its objectives, and its form: should an external person with specialist expertise in the field of diversity and inclusion be brought in as the group moderator or should someone from our own company take on that role? Should people in positions of power –such as members of management – be able to participate in the discussions? Would the focus group only talk about racism or also about other forms of discrimination and other D&I issues such as LGBTQIA+, accessibility, and the inclusion of people with disabilities? And what should the focus group aim for?

After the important first session, all group members were able to give feedback anonymously using an internal survey tool. I myself reflected on my role as an ally (sympathiser/supporter) and explained my motivation for driving the group forward. Based on this, I was able to accept and carry out the role of the project leader and moderator with the consent of the group, although I am not personally affected by racism. All members jointly evaluated the feedback on the possible objectives of the group and assessed, on a democratic basis, what the concerns regarding diversity and inclusion would be in our company – in the short, medium, and long term.

Second step in working as a focus group: finding focus and assigning roles

In the beginning, we had to slow down as a group and not try to tackle all the issues and goals at once. We proceeded pragmatically: firstly, we agreed on a common definition of racism, and then we examined which forms of racism group members had already observed or experienced themselves, in the company, in their private lives, and in public.

Racism: the definitions used by our focus group

Racism is based on racial prejudice and power. It occurs on an interpersonal level among individuals and is embedded in organisations and institutions through policies, procedures and actions.

Individual racism

Individual racism is based on personal actions,conscious or unconscious assumptions or beliefs,and happens on an interpersonal level (e.g. on the underground, at work, in department stores etc.).

Institutional racism

Institutional racism exists because of traditions, laws, norms and actions (e.g. racial profiling).

Structural racism

Structural racism is reflected in the difficultly those affected have in accessing social resources (e.g. in the housing market, the job market and the education system).

We developed a roadmap for goal setting and stored the individual tasks in our project management tool “Jira”. We prioritised each individual task according to urgency and feasibility and assigned a group member (owner) who took on responsibility for implementing all the necessary actions within a defined time frame. We had to limit ourselves to what was feasible in our company. For example, we were unable to carry out a comprehensive internal analysis on the subject because we still lacked the ability to do so. As moderator/facilitator, I kept an eye on the status and progress of our work and provided information to management. I made sure that owners of the individual tasks could also carry out their actions in addition to their work and, if there was any doubt, had to reprioritise the tasks within the group, redistribute tasks and drive forward many things myself. The overall motto for our roadmap to diversity and inclusion is: awareness first, then marketing. It was important to us to develop our own attitude and procedures first before we made our D&I commitment visible to the outside world.

Aside from definitions, strategic approaches, and pragmatic considerations, the company-wide war against racism is about the human need for fairness and participation. This means that, as an agency, we want to enable everyone, regardless of their appearance, origin, gender identity, disability, etc., to join our company and have real career opportunities, i.e. occupy key positions.

Third step in working as a focus group: networking with external experts and initiatives

We had our roadmap and the goals of our focus group evaluated by an external diversity and inclusion expert at an early stage. She also gave us helpful tips for implementing these topics within our company. In addition, we have been networking with another group from the IBM network (IBM DACH diversity team) and an external initiative (DACHBIPOC group), with whom we are continuing to regularly exchange information. In this way, we were able to create a professional working basis for our focus group fairly quickly, which was validated by various parties.

First results of the focus group: awareness training at management level and a contact point for racism

Change is best implemented when the three golden levels of change management are included:

1. individual: what behaviour-promoting measures can be established?

2. structural: what selection processes can be adapted?

3. cultural: does the company position itself credibly? Who is responsible for this?

In order to set a good example, the entire management board of our company as well as upper management took part in a first leadership awareness training course with a focus on racism in May 2021. Since management was supportive of the roadmap of our focus group, we were able to extend the “team of trust” in the agency as a first official act: in addition to the existing contact points, we introduced an in-house ombudsperson who knows what needs to be done –from both a professional and a human point of view – whenever employees observe racist incidents or experience them directly. This team of trust knows the escalation paths, can quickly determine the facts, and inform the right people in order to initiate further steps.

Our highlights after one year of the diversity & inclusion focus group: events, workshops, a guide, and lot of visibility across the company

In order to bring greater visibility to the overall theme of diversity and inclusion as we work on the issue of racism, and to share the mission of our focus group, we hosted an in-house monthly event – our “Family Night” – entitled “The Power of Diversity”. As many colleagues reported back to us, that was the breakthrough for the subject within the company. We invited Emilia Zenzile Roigas an external expert on the subject of intersectionality, and her contribution also heralded the start of Pride Month. Since then, an LGBTQIA+internal awareness campaign has been running on Slack. The subject has received a lot of feedback and is now also on the agenda of our focus group.

Our work also bore fruit outside our agency as well: our colleague Na-Young Lee worked with the IBM DACH diversity team on an IBM internal guide for anti-racist language. This recently published guide is leading the way towards more non-violent, appreciative language and inclusive behaviours in the workplace. We also supported the Bee Festival organised by IBM on the International Day for Diversity and held several workshops on the issues of gender-sensitive language, accessibility, and cultural diversity.

“We want to bring diversity and inclusion into the hearts and minds of everyone. Together we can create an inclusive workplace where everyone feels comfortable and safe.”

vision of the diversity & inclusion focus group

Diversity and inclusion is not a trend but an essential task

Not only politics, science and the economy, but every company, every manager and every employee can contribute toward people from marginalised groups being able to occupy key positions in companies and being better included.

For our company, this means, for example, that we make job advertisements more inclusive, deliberately hire more people from diverse backgrounds, and pay attention to diversity in youth development programmes and selection processes. In our “Next Generation Leader” programme, candidates have already been evaluated for several years in a two-stage, anonymous process, initially based on their performance. In cases of equal suitability, attention is also paid to (gender) diversity during the second stage of the selection process. This process has been well received internally and is spurring us on to continue to make programmes more inclusive.

After a year of intensive work in the focus group, I can say that we have already achieved a great deal. We have made the subject of diversity and inclusion better-known throughout the company and have already done a lot of work on raising awareness. We can therefore appear with authority at conferences with diverse target groups and present accessible tech subjects, for example, barrier-free access. We are continuing to work on comprehensive awareness training and measures and on positioning our themes permanently within the structure of the organisation. For example, we are committed to embedding diversity and inclusion into the corporate goals and the personal goals of individual focus group members. We also want to hire people with expertise in these areas in order to positively promote the issues and not neglect them, even in times of extensive project work. In this day and age, the subject of diversity and inclusion is not a trend, but an integral task about the participation of all employees and real equal opportunities. And this is only possible together. We want to bring diversity and inclusion into the hearts and minds of everyone – at IBM iX and beyond.



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