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Diversity, Equity and Inclusion for Safety Impact Requires Active Listening

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Inequities in the waste and recycling industry exist, with the majority representation of communities of color on the frontline.

Diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) have become an ever-integral part of environmental, social and governance (ESG) goals as transparency for integrity and ethics at every level of an organization become more integral for success.

Waste Management reported on its website that 22% of its senior leadership team is comprised of those from underrepresented communities, and 33% are women. The company aims to “achieve ethnic diversity in each segment of our workforce, with emphasis on leadership, that is greater than or equal to that of the U.S. workforce standards.”

On its website, Republic Services states, “we believe that an engaged and diverse workforce is the greatest indicator of our success. Our people make everything possible — from our profitable Growth through Differentiation strategy to our ability to fulfill our promise to customers and the environment.”

Abby Ferri, CSP and Lindsey Bell, CSP,  presented a framework for DEI in the workplace as it relates to safety at the VPPPA Next Level Safety virtual event.

“DEI is kind of a buzzword these days, and maybe if you hear it so much it almost loses its meaning,” said Ferri, but looking through it from a different lens and putting it into action can lead to better safety performance.

Diversity is more than just identifying groups within an organization. It’s about avoiding an echo chamber.

“It’s not just about getting named groups within a room,” Bell said. “It’s about getting diverse subsets within your organization to help solve problems.”

Problems can be solved in groups, but better, more sustainable solutions can be achieved with making workers feel more part of the process and if it is more intentional.

Likewise, solving problems for just one group will not resolve problems for other groups.

“When we talk about inclusion, we want to make sure the people both upstream and downstream from the problem, ensure that the entire process is represented,” Bell said.

This is where systems thinking plays a part. Instead of just involving operators or the hourly workforce, determine how all levels of the organization interact in order to avoid creating additional issues going forward.

Bell cited inviting purchasing, operations or accounts payable to the table to discuss decisions with other stakeholders to listen to the pain points and perspectives of workers.

“Maybe they decided to buy something that was 2 cents cheaper than the original thing and you’re trying to explain how that makes a huge difference,” she said. “You can’t just change someone’s gloves. A glove is a glove, but as the end user there are preferences to take into account so that $200 savings isn’t worth it.”

Ferri and Bell then explained tactics that can be employed at different levels of the organization.

Listen – Don’t Talk

Silence is golden, and getting employees to the point to where you can actively listen involves being completely quiet so workers know they actually are being heard. Cultural cadences must be considered – for instance, pauses and gaps before sentences are completed.

“Think about if you’re facilitating a safety meeting that the person may not be done speaking,” Bell said. ‘It can be a little of a turn-off for them to continue to try to contribute when it seems like they can never get their full idea out before they get cut off.”

For meetings that involve one-way communication, if there is no chance for two-way interaction, those meetings many times could have been an email or a handout.

In a virtual environment, the process of listening can be more difficult as silence and quiet pauses are more commonplace. Workers may be muted, they might not be comfortable with the platform or they simply just are waiting for a chance to speak.

The key to interacting in a virtual environment is to not give too many chances to be distracted with outside links or sending people outside of the platform, Ferri said.

“This gets very messy and it doesn’t allow for those opportunities for communication because people are more stressed about trying to navigate this platform or find where you’re at,” she said.

Another consequence of presenting in a virtual environment is that people are just multitasking more with distractions at home, for example.

There are workers who are just naturally quiet as well. Calling a worker out during a safety committee meeting for input or comments requires giving them the opportunity to decline the chance.

Sometimes the situation is that the worker already agrees with what has already been said and they don’t have anything to add, Bell said.

“You don’t want people to feel like coming to your committee meeting is going to be something that is a negative experience,” she explained. “You don’t want to cause anxiety. You do want to give them a space where they can volunteer information and not feel stressed out about it.”

Other factors to consider why participants in a meeting might not speak up include a lack of agenda, purpose, time parameters, context or priority.

Intentions do not necessarily equate to the outcome desired. Bell referenced a quote from Robin Sharma – “The smallest of actions is always better than the noblest of intentions.”

Leaders of a safety meeting must be results oriented and biased towards action.

“Intentions are irrelevant,” Bell said. “It’s the outcome that matters. Did you achieve what you wanted to achieve? Was the outcome net positive or net negative?”

Bell noted companies running “feel good” campaigns during the pandemic about masks and vaccines, which is great for information, but what are the underlying intentions?

This equates to hold safety meetings for ideas for an hour every month, but none of the ideas ever get implemented.

“There is no outcome and that can be very disengaging and a reason why your committees aren’t successful, or a reason why people aren’t speaking up or contributing. It could be a reason why people aren’t coming to the meeting,” Bell said.

Overall, it’s about creating a positive outcome for every employee in the workplace. Bell said to listen with H.O.P.E. – or Honoring Other People’s Experiences.

“You have to trust what people are telling you,” she said.

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