HIGH PONT — The home furnishings industry began a discussion on the topics of diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) and what that means for companies, their employees and their customers in BridgeTower Media’s inaugural Empowered event. The afternoon was bookended with two articulate and passionate thought leaders: KeyAnna Schmiedl, Wayfair global head of culture and inclusion, and Rosa Nuñez, director of diversity, equity and inclusion for Foley Hoag law firm.
Underscoring that it is a big topic to grapple with, Schmiedl kicked off the afternoon talking about what DEI means and how to train senior leaders to be advocates for a culture of learning and inclusivity. She noted that to start that conversation, we need to understand that diversity is “a wheel with many dimensions represented.”
“It’s not all-races-except or all-genders-except; it’s about everyone and including everyone,” she said.
From there, Schmiedl suggested that companies that want to develop their DEI program need to go from a careful conversation to a thoughtful one, with people authentically participating in the conversations. “They will be thoughtful and sometimes wrong, but that’s okay. It’s important to be in the conversation,” she said, “and to move into the space of authenticity.”
Part of that authenticity, Schmiedl said, is to move from an intention to be respectful and caring of others to actually evaluating word and actions and the way we impact others with them.
As an example, she talked about Wayfair’s principle of respecting others. “When there is an opportunity to share feedback, people get defensive and start explaining intent,” Schmiedl said, adding, “Instead, say that wasn’t my intention but I’m hearing how that landed with you … can you tell me how I could have handled that better?”
To implement a DEI program, she said it important to be clear on providing tools and guidelines and then helping every manager and employee to access and use them. These tools can then help managers as they are recruiting new employees and dealing with instances of resistance within the organization.
A big part of managing and implementing DEI programs comes down to communication and finding ways to be constructive and honest. Some of these conversations are challenging, Schmiedl acknowledged, but she said the key is to be honest about what you want to accomplish in the conversation.
“Figure out the balance of direct and indirect that will allow you to find solutions that work,” she said, suggesting the use of phrases such as “Can you just bring me to what is so fraught in this moment?” or “Let me repeat what I think you said” as a way to add clarity and understanding.
At the end of the afternoon event, Nuñez reflected on the discussions throughout the afternoon and the actionable steps home furnishings businesses can take.
“First, you can’t start to drive a corporate strategy without commitment from the top. Leadership needs to be engaged and aligned,” Nuñez said. “And reasons have to be authentic because the people working for you really know when you are walking the walk and talking the talk.”
She also noted that DEI requires the necessary allocation of resources, whether it is a line item on the budget or someone within the company who has a passion for it.
After that, she listed some steps that start the process of making a change:
- Understand why you want to do this. “Do soul-searching as an organization.”
- Understand how ready you are and what to expect. Nuñez referenced Schmiedl’s comments about having “honest curiosity.”
- Identify your priorities and where you want to go. “Be pragmatic,” she said.
- Start small with what you have and build sustainable efforts.
Throughout the process, Nuñez said, communication is key. “Communicate to your people that we are embarking on this journey together. We are not perfect; we’ll make mistakes along the way.”
But keep trying. “It’s like a Lego set,” she said. “You build the program one Lego at a time and eventually you can look back and say, ‘See what we’ve done.’”
Vicky Jarrett has worked with various furniture industry publications — including Furniture Today, Retail Ideas, Our State magazine and Casual Living — for more than 20 years and rejoined Furniture Today as Managing Editor in 2016.