At PeopleFirm, we are intentionally incorporating diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) into our work with clients across our services portfolio. We chose this approach because we don’t see DEI as a separate program or a set of discrete activities; we believe it’s a way of being. Our commitment to DEI means it should influence everything that we tackle with clients: strategy, culture, talent practices, leadership, and more.
As we increase our DEI focus with clients, we realize that we also need to check in with ourselves, and be willing to take a hard look at our own practices and habits. So we asked ourselves this question: Are there areas in which our own good intentions may be having unintended impacts?
Answering this question has led us to robust conversations in several areas, one of which is our use of the term TRIBE. We thought sharing our experience with this tender topic within PeopleFirm might inspire you to tackle a few of those sensitive issues in your own organization.
The intent and uniqueness of this word TRIBE
Many organizations use the word TEAM to refer to themselves collectively. Some use the word FAMILY. At PeopleFirm, we have called ourselves a TRIBE. The term TRIBE has been part of the PeopleFirm ethos for more than 11 years. Inspired by the thinking of Seth Godin and others, Tamra adopted this language as part of her vision for PeopleFirm. The term is intended to convey that PeopleFirm is more than just a team of colleagues: We come together with a shared commitment and passion. Our relationships go deeper than our work. As individuals, we’ve sought this community, a collective where we share a common purpose and belief that your people = your success.
What’s the issue?
Like many words, TRIBE has different connotations to different individuals. Even though we use it to describe the sense of belonging and inclusive culture of the PeopleFirm team, for those on the outside, this word may feel exclusive, as in “tribalism” – a word that separates those who are “in” from those who are “out.” It’s also a word with cultural implications. Given our history and location in the Pacific Northwest, some may view us as co-opting a culturally specific word. Regardless of our intent, this word could be seen as a blind spot with larger implications or judgement about our firm’s commitment to DEI.
What We’ve Learned: Five tips for leaning into hard DEI questions within your organization
- Start with your leaders. I give our founder and CEO, Tamra, props for her willingness to have the conversation. She could have dismissed the feedback, but she was open to it and invited our entire organization in. This openness isn’t always easy, as DEI topics often strike at the heart of a leader’s perspective or legacy and the organization’s culture and values. For DEI efforts to work, leaders need to be open to listening to other’s views and be visible champions of the work. Leaders must take an active part in creating solutions, especially when the outcomes are not clear from the outset.
- Balance the level of employee engagement with who is being impacted. TRIBE is a part of our shared identity and culture. It impacts everyone. We recognized that if we were going to change the term, we would need to give everyone a chance to weigh in. While this was the right approach for this topic, it’s important to note that broad employee engagement on DEI topics is not always best. We recommend you start with the individuals or groups who are directly impacted. That said, there are times when a swift, unilateral decision is the right move to prevent future harm.
- Assess impacts, barriers, and opportunities. Beyond gathering general feedback, narrow the focus by identifying what’s at stake. How will your organization be affected by this decision? What do you lose and what do you gain? How will your choices influence your employee experience, and what barriers might any segments of your population face? One of the inherent challenges of DEI work is to understand the potential impacts, barriers, and opportunities in the hypothetical. For example, it’s easy to listen to the voices of the people who do resonate with the word TRIBE (both internally and externally) and assume there is little negative impact. Yet, we may never know how many candidates don’t apply for a job after looking at our website, or how many employees feel uncomfortable with this word.
- Visualize the future. We’ve had several sessions brainstorming alternative concepts to TRIBE. To be honest, this hasn’t been easy; nothing feels right. We now realize that we may have to accept that there is no 1:1 replacement. We also know change is easier when you have something to move into, versus just leaving something behind. We discovered that, if the future state is not obvious, it’s best to keep your focus on the reasons why you are considering a change.
- Realize that everyone is on their own change curve. Change is hard. It takes time, and everyone goes at a different pace. As much as we’d all like to hold hands and jump together, that’s usually not the reality. PeopleFirm has been in “the messy middle” for some time now, since we’re not rushing this decision. Time can provide space for adjustment and new opportunities to emerge. We’ve seen employees continue to process with each other and explore other words in conversations and emails. Yet taking too much time can drag out what may be an inevitable decision. When dealing with DEI issues, it’s important to recognize that those who are waiting may be the people you’re wanting to help, so don’t spin your wheels forever searching for the perfect solution.
At PeopleFirm, our culture code includes the statement that we’re all a work in progress. This is true not just as individuals, but collectively as a __________ (feel free to suggest a great word for us here!). Seriously, I am proud of the way we’ve been able to hold space for this conversation and live our values in how we practice DEI. I look forward to keeping you posted on our journey.
About the Author
Abby Coppock is a consultant with PeopleFirm, leading diversity, equity and inclusion integration in PeopleFirm’s service frameworks. Abby is known for her love of people and helping organizations achieve real results. She has over 16 years of experience ranging from change management and strategic communications, to training, to research and analysis. Abby has worked across industries, including technology, government and non-profit sectors. Abby is a creative and strategic thinker who loves to solve problems, yet is not afraid to get her hands dirty with the real work. Abby has an MA in Social Service Administration from the University of Chicago, with bachelor degrees in Communication and Economics from Wheaton College. In her space time, Abby loves to paint and stays involved with local government initiatives.