Image by Anoushka Khandwala

After my first day interning at a design studio in London one summer, I returned home on the verge of tears. I couldn’t initially explain why, but I loathed the atmosphere. The thought of going to work every morning filled me with anxiety. Eventually, I realized that I was reacting to an exclusive workplace culture, and the experience of not seeing anyone that I could relate to. I felt like I didn’t have a voice.

Have you ever felt like you couldn’t bring your whole self to work? That you couldn’t heat up your food at lunchtime without attracting comments, or talk about what you did on your weekend without fear of judgement or over-curiosity? While diversity and inclusion is a hot “trend” in just about every industry right now, there’s a gap widening between hiring a diverse range of candidates and making them feel like they belong. I spoke to a range of D&I specialists in the creative industry to address the questions: How can design organizations diversify their staff while avoiding tokenism? And how can they ensure that the workplace candidates enter is inclusive?

1. Take an Intersectional Approach to Hiring

Most of the arguments against diversity manifest in statements like, “I want to hire an applicant because of their talent, not because of their ethnic background.” This aversion to talking about race hinders the fight towards equity. By looking at the recruiters you’re working with, advertising on platforms that care about diversity, and reaching out beyond your usual networks, diversity will naturally appear in your applicant pool.

One useful resource for connecting the creative industry with diverse applicants is TOB Jobs, a platform set up by Leyya Sattar and Roshni Goyate, founders of The Other Box. “There are so many recruitment companies out there that specialize in putting marginalized people forward for roles,” says Sattar. Other examples include Vercida, BAME Recruitment, Diversity.com, and PDN Recruits.

More often than not, organizations think that the can fix problematic hiring processes by doing a blind CV check (a recruitment practice that removes all identifiable information from the resumes of applicants, including name, gender, age, and education). “But actually, we should be looking at the bias of those people who are handling the CVs instead,” says Goyate. “Why do we have to remove people’s pictures and names to get them into the company?” She also stresses that the job descriptions can exclude candidates. “Agencies love to talk about their cocktail hour on Fridays, or how their fridge is full of booze. But who are they immediately excluding with that?”

While doing a blind CV check isn’t advisable, companies should also take care that they aren’t just hiring to tick a box. Instead of hiring based on one aspect of a person’s identity, hiring practices benefit from an intersectional approach. This means looking at the whole of an applicant, and it takes into account how various intersections of identity contribute to diversity of thought across a team. “The minute you stop seeing tick boxes of race, gender, and religion, it totally shifts your mindset to start thinking about intersections of identity and diversity of lived experience,” emphasizes Sattar.

Lastly, if you’re looking to hire more diverse applicants, make that clear in the interview process. When you’re interviewed or hired as a minority candidate, there’s often a niggling feeling that you’re being selected for your skin tone as opposed to your portfolio. It’s better to alleviate that suspicion from the outset. Explain to candidates how and why you’re hiring for diversity.

2. Create Solidarity in the Workplace

It may be that you want to hire people of color, but if your team looks homogenous, it’s likely that applicants won’t feel welcome. Remember that retaining staff is as important as recruitment, and therefore it’s vital to introduce structures into the workplace that support new employees. This could be in the form of mentorship. Or, you could hire multiple applicants at once so that there’s a sense of solidarity. 

Sattar and Goyate run a series of “Know Your Bias” courses for creative agencies, where they emphasize that taking personal accountability for your actions is integral for creating an inclusive workplace culture. In one workshop, they address people’s “fear of saying the wrong thing” by equipping employees with an understanding of terminology like “queer,” “BAME,” and “colorism.” Understanding a word’s origins and associations allows people to confidently know how and when to use it.

On top of tackling inherent bias in staff, Sattar says that companies need to ask minority employees simple questions about what support they need. “You can then start to think about being more inclusive, whether that’s bringing in flexible working or during a religious holiday saying ‘Oh you’re fasting, how can we support you during this time?’”

To Douglas Davis, co-chair of AIGA’s Diversity and Inclusion Task Force, the idea of inclusivity is rooted in “belonging.” “There’s a designer who might need a wheelchair, or someone who is deaf or hard of hearing, and that designer is coming to this profession and asking ‘Do I belong?’” says Davis. People in leadership positions should ask their team if they feel like they belong, and if they do, then the organization can conclude that it’s a relevant company (time and time again, it’s been proven that diverse organizations are better equipped to serve customers and minimize bias, thus making them relevant). “Employees have to be sober enough to look at the truth,” says Davis. “If people are leaving an organization in droves, it’s because it’s tone deaf at some level.” Assessing itself through the lenses of “belonging” and “relevance” helps organizations stay accountable to those they’re hiring; a sense of “belonging” naturally builds trust and productiveness. But of course, belonging can be relative. 

“There’s five different generations from the Boomers to Gen Z in the workforce right now, and they all have different understandings of what D&I might mean,” says Davis, quoting an insight from Chief Inclusion Experience Officer Renetta McCann. “The Boomers might see diversity as ‘there’s a Black designer, a female designer, a gay designer.’ But the youngest generation are those who grew up with a Black president, so there’s a whole different standard of what belonging means. The frame of reference for all these different people spans decades.” Employers should understand that belonging is relative, as employees will have different needs in order to feel truly included. Ultimately, it’s integral that companies listen to their staff, both prospective and current.

3. Hire a D&I Consultant

Dr. Aaron Bruce, Chief Diversity Officer at ArtCenter College of Design in Pasadena, says that “millions of dollars are spent on lawsuits and discriminations claims every year.” In 2006 for instance, the Human Rights Commission of New York sued advertising agencies because the 3% of Black people in their staff didn’t reflect the 35% Black population of the city. It made sure to subpoena agencies two years later, during Creative Week, because nothing had changed. Instead of racking up pricey lawsuits, it’s cheaper (and far more constructive) to hire an in-house diversity consultant to ensure that minorities feel safe within a workplace.

“The role of a D&I consultant is to create spaces where people can be vulnerable, express their fears or concerns, and be able to grow from those positions in a way that they’re not judged,” says Bruce. At ArtCenter, this process usually starts through organizing small group discussions. Sometimes Bruce also initiates one-to-one sessions, where individuals can unpack the struggles that they’re facing. 

Alongside meetings, Bruce suggests that there should be staffers responsible for Diversity and Inclusion throughout an organization, so that someone from each department is taking care of D&I initiatives. “Through that process you’re creating a web and network throughout the organization that can be more effective than one person, because there’s so much work to do,” he says. “These individuals act as support for minorities. They build community, and they can provide access to mentoring.”

This kind of work involves a lot of emotional labor. “The emotion comes out of the fact that there’s empathy, so the commitment is genuine… the stressors of the individuals you engage with can really wear you down if you don’t find ways to regenerate and take care of yourself,” says Bruce. With this knowledge in mind, employees should compensate diversity officers well. And not just in terms of salary. Ensure that there are supportive structures in place, from counseling to community groups that bring minorities together in solidarity. 

*

The most difficult pill to swallow is realizing that diversity, inclusion, and equity are a long game. There’s no single workshop that you can use as a band-aid for the problem. The process involves a deep interrogation into how a company functions, from its staff attitudes to structural imbalances. It involves the recognition that minorities’ needs have not been woven into workplaces.

While Davis sees D&I as a “part of your survival in the future,” he also understands that tackling this problem “forces you to be honest,” which can incite fear. But this work doesn’t have to be scary. Goyate says that companies need to be honest with themselves and their employees. “It’s about putting your hands up and saying ‘we haven’t got all the answers and we haven’t got it perfect, but we really want to.’”