Ex-Uber diversity lead explains how tech companies can avoid performative allyship
Bernard Coleman discusses what he's learned over the years about building inclusive workplaces.
This story is part of "The Inclusive Workplace," a Protocol special report. Read more here.
Bernard Coleman landed in the hot seat shortly after he joined Uber as the company's first-ever head of diversity in January 2017. Within his first two months on the job, former Uber engineer Susan Fowler alleged sexual harassment and discrimination at the company. While Coleman wasn't implicated, all eyes were on him as the new face of diversity. A month later, Uber released its first diversity report, and the numbers weren't great.
Coleman spent a little over three years at Uber before joining payroll startup Gusto to lead its employee engagement and diversity efforts. In all, Coleman has spent more than ten years focused on human resources, and about six years specifically focused on diversity and inclusion. Coleman first tackled DEI work at the Democratic National Committee as its deputy chief diversity officer and director of human resources.
Throughout Coleman's career, he told Protocol he's seen diversity, equity and inclusion work evolve over the years. The work centers around building more diverse workforces, as well as fostering inclusion within the workplace. That inclusion piece helps to ensure companies aren't building leaky pipelines, where folks from underrepresented backgrounds leave the company sometimes as quickly as they came in.
Read on for Coleman's insight. His remarks have been edited for brevity and clarity.
The acronyms have grown. Before, it was just diversity. That was where everyone was starting. Diversity was really important and making sure people from underrepresented backgrounds are part of your talent strategy. And then you just saw the introduction of more ladders. Then it was inclusion. You'd see the Vernā Myers quote of being invited to the party, but then being able to dance at the party. You saw it evolving, because diversity wasn't a complete strategy in terms of making people feel included.
So once we started working on inclusion and trying to measure for inclusion, then came belonging, or equity. As cultures evolve, that makes more sense as people learn from their mistakes, try to better themselves. It's evolved since then.
And when I first began, it was, you know, a lot of it was [focusing on] supplier diversity. That was the thing that everybody did. No one would argue with supplier diversity and its importance. And then you started seeing diversity reports for accountability and transparency.
I'd almost say there's like three waves. There's pre-anyone even sharing that data, even understanding what it looked like inside of companies. Then there was the era of transparency and you'd see, "We need to do a lot more work and make progress." And then there was a lot of not progress or lack of progress. And then you started seeing — I call this like the third wave — where I personally feel like it's being taken more seriously. I've seen less "let's make the business case" or "why should we hire people who are historically excluded?" It seems more earnest. And so I would just say over my career, it went from being maybe a side project to actually a business driver or business initiative. So it's getting more respected, it feels like, in some ways.
I think at the beginning, I was new to (DEI), so I would try to employ best practices. But the thing about best practices is you still have to do right sizing for the organization based on where they are in terms of attitude and aptitude. So if they're not ready for it, even if it's really the best thing that the organization needs, if they're not ready for it, it'll just be rejected. So a lot of it is more about learning and listening, and trying to figure out when are you going to launch certain things based upon where the organization is.
So it's almost basically taking a temperature test of: What can you actually do at this organization? It's kind of an assessment. Even if they're saying they're ready for it, you can kind of look around and see, is that really true? You know, is the staff makeup representative? Are you true to your values? You start making an assessment in terms of readiness and what am I stepping into, but also what do I need to do? And what's the order of implementation to be successful? That has helped me a lot. I've seen practitioners go with best practices, but the organization was not necessarily ready for that best practice. You have to go on the order of what they can handle and then kind of turn up the heat.
When I was at the Hillary campaign, following the killings of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling, we had these conversations with different folks from different groups about what is the Black experience in America. You think about the Democratic constituencies — we talked to each group about what a day in the life looks like. I would ask someone from the community to share ten minutes a day in your life and we could ask questions and talk and be really vulnerable. That meant a lot to people because it allows you to learn from people's stories. The iteration of that at Uber was the Inclusive Actions Index. Like, what does inclusion feel like at Uber. I worked with a lot of our employee resource groups to understand what inclusion felt like to them.
And then when I roll those two up, now we have what we call at Gusto RISE Bites. So this is more programatized and we've been doing this for over a year at this point, where every Tuesday we talk about any topic relating to the realm of diversity, equity and inclusion. And me and my team find articles, we share those articles and we facilitate conversations. Everyone knows to show up at 2:30 on Tuesdays, Pacific, for this conversation. So you know, maybe it's "What's a name?" You know, we're talking about names and why people sometimes might be an immigrant and change their name, or you might be talking about the anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act, you might talk about civic engagement. But basically, it's thematic based on what's going on.
But each time we try to talk about things to educate and create more awareness. And so, by cobbling what I learned in my prior roles, it promotes greater education awareness, allows for that storytelling element and then they feel included. The feedback that we've gotten is, "I've never been able to speak so candidly at work and it makes me feel more supported because we can have real conversations and I could be more vulnerable." This past week we talked about mental health and how people are feeling with COVID and all the things that are going on in the world. You can feel more connected with people through stories and sharing. And doing this in a facilitated way where people just know where to show up, and there's already a theme and a topic, people kind of come prepared and it feels very safe. You can't create safe spaces, but it's a safer space to be.
You should have lots of tools and lots of repetition of the tools. People try to use unconscious bias training as a solve, like doing victory laps after one training. That you could do anything once and be awesome at it is a silly notion. And I think now people are looking at it more holistically. That's what we try to do at Gusto. You have to put a lot of elements in place for this to work across the employee lifecycle. Most people know unconscious bias and microaggressions. I'm not going to say it's played out, but that needs to be one of many tools that you have in your toolbox if you're going to be a good practitioner.
What I like about Employee Resource Groups is they're like your internal focus group, if you leverage them appropriately. They are a microcosm of your customers and they have a wealth of knowledge. You can include them in a lot of processes and get their opinion, even gut checking about whether we should be thinking about certain things. But you know, there's a balance. You shouldn't be using them for air cover for something you're about to do, like a PR thing. I think people want to feel valued, to have their opinion asked. Employees take greater ownership because they might actually see their idea come to life somewhere in the company. It's a powerful tool if done well. It's when it's mascotty, "cover for us," where I think the tool is being used inappropriately. It's like using a hammer to screw something in. That's not the right tool.
Something really challenging that I was able to overcome? I think this is with any organization, particularly with affinity group members and I've done this everywhere I've been, which is, "Can I trust you?" What I've seen in the DEI space, there are certain practitioners that people respect and think are the real deal and some people who you don't question their credentials but you question their motivations. So I think it's a matter of trust and just building that trust. It takes a lot of trust to organize in the way that you need to organize to get these things done. You're asking people to give their time, their treasure and their talent. I would say that's always been the hard part. I think people generally trust me but you can't always guarantee that and that's something you have to always work towards and work at.
The other thing I've noticed about D&I work is a lot of fear. People don't want to mess up or do the wrong thing. It's not that people don't care but they also don't want to be put on Front Street when they mess up. So sometimes that creates inaction, and I'm not saying that's for everybody but if someone can't trust your guidance then they're not going to do it because they're afraid of getting blasted for trying.
You need to find those champions, like who is going to back you. It's a lot easier to do anything with other people. A lot of it is relationship management, making the key relationships with those who will champion the causes that you care about.
One of the big things I've seen in terms of this and I'm seeing this a little bit post-George Floyd and all the countless other murders of Black folks: DEI was elevated. The conversation was elevated and people were looking for D&I leaders. People reached out to me asking what they should do and I told them to make sure they knew what they were getting into. I asked them to find out if they would be resourced, if they would get a team, if they would have access to leaders, how committed the company was, was it just performative allyship or was it that the company sees the light and they really want you to do [the work]?
The danger is, you would never want to be put in the position where they set you up to fail by undersourcing you. As a practitioner, if you go in there with your eyes open, and you effectively manage your own expectations, then they'll be fine. But if you go in there, and they tell you one thing, and it's another, that's a much harder pill to swallow. That's performative allyship at its best. You're taking the weight of everything and becoming the fall person, as opposed to, "Let's truly think about how this can work across every vertical, every horizontal at the company." I would say just ask those questions and see what you get.
CEOs and founders need to find their "why." I've seen leaders who are extremely awesome leaders in certain aspects, but because they don't feel comfortable talking about D&I, they don't say anything, which then leads people to believe they don't care. So what do you care about? Let's start there. Also, walk the walk and talk the talk. Speaking of performative allyship, if you're saying it you should also be doing it, consistently. It can't just be this one thing where you give money to some organization or do a volunteer day or put a black square on Instagram. It has to be more than that. Because I do believe that many employees expect more from their leadership and they want to see it day in and day out.
You've been hearing about the big quit or the big resignation, and talent has a lot of leverage right now and they want to know if companies are committed. So I would say to company leaders, find your "why," speak your values, be your values and be consistent about it and then grow from there. That's what leadership calls for. You can't just be great at making widgets and stay in that lane. People expect more.