Episode 307: DEI and Social Justice in the Workplace With Melissa Horne

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Episode 307: DEI and Social Justice in the Workplace With Melissa Horne

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Welcome to the Workology Podcast, a podcast for the disruptive workplace leader. Join host Jessica Miller-Merrell, founder of Workology.com, as she sits down and gets to the bottom of trends, tools and case studies for the business leader, H.R. and recruiting professional who is tired of the status quo. Now, here’s Jessica with this episode of Workology,

Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:00:26.46] Diversity, equity, inclusion are not new ideas in H.R. and the corporate arenas. But in recent months, the importance and significance of DEI in the workplace has gotten leaders throughout corporate America to think about what doing the right thing in our community looks like. For many of us working in H.R., this means we’re not taking our DEI initiatives to the stakeholders. It’s the other way around. They are coming to us and I love that, and I think we are ready to respond. The Workology Podcast is sponsored by Upskill HR and Ace the HR Exam. The DEI Series on the Workology podcast is powered by Ginger.io.

Episode 307: DEI and Social Justice in the Workplace With Melissa Horne (@MM_Horne)


Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:01:09.53] On today’s podcast, I’m talking to Dr Melissa Horne. She’s the director of Client Experience at Learning Snippets and Dialectic. Melissa holds a Ph.D. in modern American and African-American history from Rutgers University. She specializes in the history of social justice movements, and Melissa’s research focuses on the historic systems of racism and oppression within historically black universities and colleges and the ways in which students and faculty have organized movements to subvert and challenge these systems. Melissa helps clients develop targeted and strategic social justice education programs and campaigns, influencing the policies that affect people of color and the LGBTQ community. Melissa, welcome to the Workology Podcast.

Melissa Horne: [00:01:57.59] Thank you so much for having me, Jessica. It’s great to be here.

Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:02:01.01] You have spent your career and education up to your doctorate degree working in the organizational DEI space. What led you to this career path?

Melissa Horne: [00:02:11.21] So there’s actually kind of a funny story or now maybe it’s more of a happy accident. So it actually started in my first year of university. I was picking my fall courses and I’d originally wanted to take a course on the history of witches in witchcraft and apparently so did a number of other students because it had filled up by the time I tried to register. And then the only course left open was one on the civil rights movement. That course really, I think, changed my life as an 18-year-old who’d lived know a relatively privileged life. The stories of black student activists willing to die for many of the rights that I took for granted every day really, really stuck with me. And from there I continued to study the history of racism. I became really interested in the history of scientific racism and how that shaped the narrative of slavery in the US. And from there, I continued to study and research on how white folks in the US reconciled these ideas with emancipation. And I started following different threads and it led me to studying black student activism in the early 19th century because much of this early activism was a rejection of scientific racism and fighting for the rights for self-determination over black higher education. So while I was doing my PhD, though, that sort of coincided with the fight for LGBTQ rights and specifically marriage equality. And so I started volunteering with a number of LGBTQ organizations, including the National Center for Lesbian Rights, which was leading the DOMA (Defense of Marriage Act) case. And so, you know, while I loved the research and work that I was doing in the academy, I really started to pivot and think about what my career could be like after I got my doctorate and how could how I could pursue a career where I could use my education, my passion for social justice to improve the lives of folks every day.

Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:04:04.82] In our prep call, you and I talk briefly about Basecamp’s recent ban on political and societal discussions at work. And we’re going to link to the Forbes article in the show notes. And that story has been evolving since you and I first had our call. There was the resulting exodus of about 60 percent of their employees. What was the misstep here? And and what do you think HR leaders can learn from in this case study?

Melissa Horne: [00:04:32.01] Oh, my goodness, there’s so much wrong with what Basecamp did, so it’s, it’s hard to know where to start, but I think I’m going to steal the old feminist line. The personal is political. And for so many folks, those who are racialized, disabled, identify as LGBTQ+, those who are newcomers, there’s really no way to separate their identities from political and societal discourse. And the CEO of Basecamp, while I’m sure he thought he was doing something good, it’s just so misguided to think that we can separate ourselves from the external factors. I mean, when we think about it, we all come to work with other things that are happening in our lives and to really, you know, shut this down sort of goes against where I think we are moving to in HR, which is enabling employees to bring their whole selves to work. And so for asking folks to try to segment and separate themselves from their identities, I mean, I think that’s just a terrible practice. And beyond that, though, it was a terrible business decision. And as I mentioned, totally going against the grain of what most companies are trying to do, which is to align themselves with social justice and human rights causes. You know, with so many, so much choice out there, folks who are looking to spend their money and time, they’re looking for companies that align with their values. You mentioned the Forbes article and the data is clear in there that employees expect and want their employer to take a stance on current societal and cultural issues.

Melissa Horne: [00:05:59.40] And the data in that article also says that employees whose employers take a strong stance on current social and cultural issues have higher rates of job satisfaction. I think it was two times. So, you know, what do H.R. leaders learn from this? If we’re truly committed to a great employee experience, if we’re committed to the ideals of justice and equity and we want a safe and productive workforce, then we need to recognize for many employees they can’t separate themselves from the current social culture and political issues. And do we really want them to? You know, let’s think about policies like don’t ask, don’t tell. When folks can’t come to work as authentic selves, they aren’t giving you their all. And so from a business standpoint, this just doesn’t make sense. So what can and maybe what should we do is find ways where folks can have an outlet to discuss these issues. Let’s set aside weekly or bi, weekly or monthly groups where folks can come together and talk about these issues, bring in experts or speakers, rather than just shutting it down completely and maybe even more importantly, ask employees what they need and what they want. Because we know that when when folks are engaged, when they’re able to bring themselves and when their employers are supporting them, ultimately that’s much better for, for the business in general.

Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:07:11.30] I look at this to like Basecamp made its position known, and those employees know exactly the kind of workplace and culture that they have now signed up for, and they now can make the decision and 60 percent of them did to leave the organization. And I think that we’ll, we’ll see how this impacts them negatively or positively. But at least all the employees that are present and employed by Basecamp for the moment, they’re all in alignment. They know exactly where that company stands.

Melissa Horne: [00:07:46.22] They do. And I mean, I think that that’s, you know, that’s their right. Just as it was the right for the other folks to find employment where the company aligned with their values and their goals

Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:08:00.35] Besides being the right thing to do, research indicates that DEI directly impacts the revenue and success of the company. Can you explain how this is so? Because I feel like sometimes people feel like DEI feels really, really fuzzy, but it has a positive impact on the business.

Melissa Horne: [00:08:19.64] Yeah, absolutely. I mean, I think we can even just go back to the Basecamp example, employee turnover, employee churn. What a major impact that’s going to be on Basecamp to go out there and recruit, you know, and maybe some folks didn’t have the financial, you know, stability to maybe leave. And so they had to make a decision on whether or not they could stay or, you know, Basecamp position aligns with with their values. But, you know, there’s a really strong case for applying a DEI lens to all aspects of your business from a talent management perspective, all the way through to your marketing, branding and your selection of vendors or suppliers. Let’s start with talent management. We know that there is a real cost associated with finding and recruiting top talent. The cost of employee turnover is quite great. So from that standpoint, you want to make sure that when you’re investing in recruiting folks that that you can keep them there. And so we often say like diversity is important, but then we look towards that equity, inclusion and belonging. And so once folks are in the door, are they working in a place that they feel they belong? Do they feel included? And if not, they’re likely going to leave. The marketing and branding folks now were very discerning, right, we were looking at brands, we’re looking to invest in companies that align with our values and for folks who don’t see themselves represented in the marketing and branding, they’re not likely to put their money into that company, not likely to invest.

Melissa Horne: [00:09:46.80] And so you’re missing out on huge markets if you’re not putting that DEI lens into your marketing, into those decisions. And in terms of vendors and suppliers investing in new vendors, new suppliers, diverse vendors and suppliers means that you’re also investing potentially in innovative companies. You’re looking at different solutions that you may not have already sort of come across. So you’re also investing in communities which then by, you know, investing in diverse vendors and suppliers, you’re putting money into their pockets and allowing those communities to have greater economic opportunity, which then means that they can reinvest in your companies. And ultimately, you know, when we put that diversity lens, apply that to all aspects of our business, we actually all win, you know, so. And that comes back to sort of the right thing to do so there, so that you don’t have to be separate investing in your people, investing in diverse suppliers, vendors and really, you know, signaling to diverse consumers and buyers through your marketing is great for the bottom line. But it also means, you know, that you’re distributing wealth also among different communities, which ultimately is great for business.

Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:10:57.51] One thing that I’m seeing a lot of right now is that companies they’re interested in and I’m thankful for this, interested in expanding or having conversations in the DEI space, but many of them are requiring or mandating mandatory DEI training. What are what are your thoughts on this?

Melissa Horne: [00:11:21.64] If you had asked me a while ago, I probably would have wavered a bit. But personally, I think it’s the right move. What I’m what, I’m hearing and what I think is important is in the space and for DEI initiatives to work is accountability. So I think accountability is really important when it comes to making part of the company culture. And training, as we know, is often an important part of reinforcing and communicating company culture to employees. So I really do think that having it mandatory, one shows that the company values this, and I don’t think you have to be heavy handed either. It’s not like you must do this, but I think that there’s a lot of communication that needs to go around as well before you sort of start the training, communicating your why and why the company values this. And also, you know, we just talked about the business case that there is one the right thing to do, but there’s a business case to this as well. And so knowing your audience and what message they need to hear is really important. But training really helps us set a baseline for inclusion, for having a shared language. And once we sort of have that that cultural shift, we can start to really look at the policies and practices that we have in place and to make sure that they’re also aligned with, you know, our values as well.

Break: [00:12:44.70] Let’s take a reset. This is Jessica Miller-Merrell. The Workology Podcast is sponsored by Upskill HR and Ace The HR Exam. The DEI Series on the Workology Podcast is powered by Ginger.io. And we’re talking about diversity, equity, inclusion with Dr. Melissa Horne.

Break: [00:13:06.00] Every employee has different mental health needs from preventive behavioral health coaching to therapy and psychiatry. Ginger offers effective, convenient mental health care for any level of need, all from a smartphone. Learn more. Visit Ginger.com.

Inclusive Learning Experiences in the Workplace

Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:13:24.06] Can you tell us a little bit about Learning Snippets and its parent company, Dialectic?

Melissa Horne: [00:13:29.16] Yeah, absolutely. So Dialectic creates inclusive science-based learning experiences for workplaces. Our work is really guided by our commitment to using the insights and methods of science and to honor the voices and experiences of employees. So by that I mean, we often have folks come to us and say, you know, we think we have this problem and we’d like to design training for that. And we’re really committed to one, the scientific methodology, which includes a discovery portion, which means that we go out and actually talk to the end users, the people whose, who are going to be taking this training to really uncover what their challenges are, what are their obstacles, what do they need to know to be able to do their job better, to be more successful. And so using that feedback that those insights from, from the employees and working with the the leadership, we create custom train that’s going to really help folks solve the problems that they have and be able to, be able to do their jobs better. Ultimately, our goal is to create real, measurable organizational change for our clients. So our bread and butter is really to create custom e-learning experiences. Learning Snippets, on the other hand, is our micro-learning platform, which is designed for building inclusive behaviors. We’ve also based this on proven scientific research. So, Snippets use, utilizes space-learning in a repeatable, flexible manner that fits into the pockets of employees daily schedules with the goal of making inclusive behaviors an everyday thing.

Melissa Horne: [00:15:07.45] You know, what we know is that these one and done training sessions, you know, are great for raising awareness, they’re great for communicating why companies starting out with DEI training, but ultimately, we know from science that by the end of that, you know, 90 minute session, two-hour session, folks have already forgotten a lot of what they’ve learned. It’s science, you know, the Ebbinghaus Forgetting Curve. So what we’ve done is we’ve taken all the core concepts around, you know, certain DEI issues or topics and we space them out. So space learning gets around that forgetting curve. We also use scenario based learning because that’s how adults learn is that is by thinking critically, inconsequentially. So when we design our, our snippets, it’s all about making them as real and as to actual situations that folks would experience in the workplace so that they can apply these concepts, right? To the workplace. So we’re not just talking about nebulous words. We’re actually looking at how do we help folks change the way that they behave, and we do that through scenario. And to ensure their training is effective and comprehensive, it’s really important for us that we work with a variety of subject matter experts and folks with lived experience to validate our content. So for us, it’s really important that we’re creating realistic scenarios and that we’re getting advice from folks with lived experience and the subject matter experts. And we’re not just creating this in a vacuum.

Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:16:37.63] Talk to me about the concept of micro-learning and how it applies to DEI training, but maybe also all different types of training and why this is helpful and a benefit for employers to consider.

Melissa Horne: [00:16:52.14] Yeah, I think it’s applicable to all types of training. And actually the origin story of our Learning Snippets was born out of, we originally developed them to support leadership training that we were developing for a client. So we were doing in-person training and we were following up with these scenario-based snippets because we were training a bunch of new different concepts for leaders. And what we wanted to do was provide them with a space, an opportunity to practice the new skills and concepts that we were working on before they were actually, you know, having to face these in real life with with their staff. And so that program was incredibly successful. We got a lot of great feedback and folks felt more confident in their ability to handle these sort of complex coaching situations and that they were able to apply and practice this in a safe place. You know, you were able to make mistakes, you know, when you’re sort of working through this training before you actually have to go out there and face your your staff. So scenario-based micro-learning is a great way to teach, to train any new skill or behavior. And so we can apply that to DEI training because a lot of us want to be more inclusive. But there is a real fear around saying the wrong thing, doing the wrong thing. It’s a skill that, you know, we have to develop like any other skill, you know. And so practice is really the, the basis around, at least the way that we think about micro learning and training.

Melissa Horne: [00:18:23.32] So we know I mentioned earlier that single day training, whether it’s in person or module-based, is really ineffective without that practice. I mentioned, you know, attendees can forget up to 60 percent of what they’ve learned 60 minutes after the presentation and only two to three percent of the information one month later. So to combat retention issues, e-learning, when it’s spaced out in small, digestible chunks or lesson really makes that learning stick. And that’s what you want. You want this learning to stick when you invest in it and you want to be usable and applicable for your employees. So the concept that we have is really simple. Replace your one day training with short e-learning sessions spaced out over a longer period of time, and it’s shown to be way more effective and longer lasting than traditional in-person or online training. And the other thing that you want to think about, if you’re looking for training solutions, whether to DEI or not, is that it includes consequential reasoning and critical thinking to make the learning really meaningful. When you apply consequential reasoning and critical thinking to your e-learning, research shows that it leads to a major increase in sustained learning over the same sort of 30-day period. That’s, those are my thoughts on that and that’s why we, we tend to gravitate towards micro-learning.

Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:19:38.53] I am such a fan of micro-learning. It really does elevate and enhance that retention piece, giving your brain time to absorb the information, consider what you, the information that you’ve received and then, like you said, be able to learn from it and make those mistakes.

Melissa Horne: [00:19:57.97] Absolutely. Yeah. I think it’s just and folks, you know, there’s the other stuff is that we’re so busy, we really only have 20 minutes. The average worker only has about 20 minutes a week to learn. And so if you’re just asking them to spend five, ten concentrated minutes on that, you’re going to get a lot more out of them than trying to overburden them with your employees, with these boring mod modules that don’t really work.

Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:20:23.56] Another question I wanted to talk to you, getting back to the social justice side of things is what do you think social justice looks like in the workplace today? And how do you think that we as HR leaders can create a safe space for those diverse voices and cultural intelligence?

Melissa Horne: [00:20:42.83] I really think it goes back to looking at how you’re doing business and, and, and are you applying a social justice lens to all of your practices. So from recruitment to performance management to training, do you have equitable systems, policies and practices in place that ensure not only representation of diverse voices within your company, but representation in places that hold power? So, you know, a lot of companies will look at their demographics and say our workforce is diverse. That’s excellent, but let’s take a deeper dive. Does your diverse workforce exist only on the front lines, or do you have folks seated at all the tables from the top through the bottom? Are they in positions of power and not just sort of one person, right? Because then we’re dealing with tokenism. We’re looking at truly having a diverse workforce scaffolded throughout the organization in places where they’re making decisions and have power to affect business decisions as well. In doing that, we have to think about like where are we finding talent? Right? Are we actively recruiting and cultivating diverse pipelines? And that means sort of not going to the same colleges or universities that we typically go to. If we don’t have diverse decision makers, we’re probably not going to be looking at different places for folks, right? We’re going to keep going back to that same same pool. And we’re missing out on tons of really qualified candidates who could, you know, be improving your business.

Melissa Horne: [00:22:16.30] So where are we finding talent? Have we done an audit of our job descriptions as well? So that’s another thing, too. Are there unnecessary education components that automatically exclude or create barriers for certain candidates? Are we using gender neutral language in these job descriptions? For a time there was all tech startups and scale ups were hiring, coding ninjas and wizards. And all that language skews male, right? So does our company present in a way that other diverse candidates see themselves in our company? And then once we have diverse candidates in the door, what does the pipeline for advancement look like? How do we promote people into leadership roles? What metrics are being used for this? Are these decisions being made on the golf courses or are they based on an equitable process that is meant to reduce biased decision making. And another way that you can sort of create a safe space, I want to go back to that, for diverse voices is supporting and investing in employee resource groups. This is a great way to boost inclusion and belonging and support a strong employee experience strategy. So the most successful employee resource groups or ERGs are those that have support and budget from leadership to support programming, to allow employees to use work hours for initiatives and to provide channels for these groups to influence business decisions. And those successful ERGs are ones that focus on belonging, recruitment, retention, career development and marketing strategies.

Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:23:50.11] How do we work on DEI initiatives without being perceived as performative?

Melissa Horne: [00:23:57.22] We’re in Pride Month right now, and I can’t count on my fingers and toes and other things, how many companies I see with pride flags, which is great, but how many of these companies are located in At-Will states? How many of these companies are actively supporting or looking for ways to improve LGBTQ rights within their company? Do they have paid leave for their LGBTQ plus employees? So, you know, I think it’s, there is intense pressure right now for brands to put out statements, to be on social media showing that solidarity when it comes to Black Lives Matter, when it comes to Pride Month. And that’s that’s where things get, you know, performed. And that’s great that you do that. But the real work comes with making sure that your organization is actually during Pride Month. It’s a great time to look at and review policies and practices. Are we actually supporting our LGBTQ+ employees? If we’re not, are we supporting LGBTQ+ initiatives? Are we supporting our local organizations and chapters? So, you know, where are we spending our money? How, how are we as an organization, not just having a pride flag logo, but are we actually doing work within the LGBTQ+ community? Right? So that’s where, you don’t want to just sort of fly the flag, but you want to be doing the work.

Melissa Horne: [00:25:28.03] And so that goes back again to I think my, my point is, is this equity lens being applied throughout all of your business decisions? And that’s how you start to get away from from that performative. You know, this stuff takes a long time and that’s OK, right? It’s OK to put out a statement saying we recognize that we have this issue. And here are the steps that we’re going to take, whether it’s over the next three to five to 10 years to ensure that our company is achieving its equity goals. The other thing, too, is I think I went back to, I want to, want to go back to the point of accountability. So when you put out these statements, how are you holding yourselves accountable? You know, what milestones are you setting? And are you reporting on those? Who’s holding you accountable? Is their actual budget allotted for DEI initiatives? Because without that money and continuous funding, they often die. People come to me and say, we’ve been talking about this for many years, why isn’t it sticking? And often it’s because there’s a lack of accountability. There’s a lack of budget allotment, lack of support from leadership. So it has to be from top down and bottom up to ensure that these things aren’t performative.

Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:26:40.07] Appreciate your your insights in here, because I do think a lot of people, unfortunately are talking about DEI just because it’s in the conversation, but they’re not doing the work or backing up what they’re putting out on social media in their companies and the cultures and in their business.

Melissa Horne: [00:26:59.74] Yeah, and I mean, I think the other thing, too, is that it’s really hard to do the work yourselves internally. And I do advocate, you know, working with a third-party person who can be that bridge between both leadership and employees, someone who can help the company be accountable, or that there is a Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer. Someone who’s whose role within the company as well, you know, so whether it’s an external person or internal person, but the role has to have teeth, right? It can’t just be, we’re going to put someone in here. Look, we’ve done this. You know, the person has to have to be sitting at the table, be part of the decision making process and actually have budget to enable them to, to do this work as well.

Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:27:41.89] Melissa, thank you so much for taking the time to chat with us today. Where can people go to learn more about the work that you do?

Melissa Horne: [00:27:49.78] Absolutely. Yeah. So you can, well you can find me on LinkedIn, but you can also find us at www.Dialectic.Solutions, and that’s where you can find me, our company.

Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:28:03.40] Awesome. Well, thank you again, Melissa. I really appreciate your insights and take the time to chat with us.

Melissa Horne: [00:28:08.76] I appreciate it. Thank you so much, Jessica. It was great.

Closing: [00:28:12.16] Conversations about leadership and culture are extremely important and we need to have more of them because these conversations spark change. It’s our job as HR leaders to support our companies and our leaders, giving them resources and training that can open up DEI initiatives in a way that sets your company up for long term success while also setting an example of doing what is right and what that looks like. I appreciate Melissa’s willingness to share her expertise on today’s podcast. Now, this podcast is our DEI series. It’s part of the DEI series on the Workology Podcast, where we’re talking with diversity, equity, inclusion experts and tapping into their knowledge and experience in this area.

Closing: [00:28:54.13] The Workology Podcast is sponsored by Upskill HR and ACE The HR Exam. The DEI series on the Workology Podcast is powered by Ginger.io. This podcast is for the disruptive workplace leader who’s tired of the status quo. My name is Jessica Miller-Merrell and until next time you can visit Workology.com to listen to all our Workology Podcast episodes.

Closing: [00:29:18.35] Personal and professional development is essential for successful H.R. leaders. Join Upskill HR to access life training, community, and over one hundred on demand courses for that dynamic leader. H.R. recert credits available. Visit UpskillHR.com for more.

Connect with Dr. Melissa Horne.



– Dr. Melissa Horne on LinkedIn

– Dr. Melissa Horne on Twitter

– Dialectic Solutions

 – Learning Snippets

– Why Do Diversity And Inclusion Initiatives Fail? The Cautionary Tail Of Basecamp

– Episode 295: Second Chance Hiring and DEI with Cheri Garcia

– Episode 298: Creating Inclusive Apprenticeships with Josh Christianson of PIA

– Episode 301: The Role of the CHRO and Employee Well-Being

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