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KDPM Consulting Group CEO on how to drive organizational change in DE&I

Karlyn Percil-Mercieca says change in DE&I requires C-suite buy-in, employee feedback and moving beyond the status quo
Kristin Laird
Karlyn Percil-Mercieca
Karlyn Percil-Mercieca

Though corporate Canada has been embracing diversity, equity and inclusion (DE&I) practices on a grander scale in recent years – in the face of widening public conversation about race and justice – there’s still work to be done to bridge the gap between rhetoric and reality. We chatted with Karlyn Percil-Mercieca, CEO of KDPM Consulting Group – a Toronto-based firm specializing in leadership and DE&I, which counts RBC, Deloitte and Starbucks among its clients – on creating a company culture that promotes acceptance and belonging. 

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Over the past few years, organizations have taken steps to build DE&I into their policies and hiring practices. Overall, how successful have they been in moving the needle in a positive direction? 

I think some have [been successful]. You have organizations having the conversation and they do have a DE&I policy in place, but they don’t necessarily put it into practice – it’s not a part of the day-to-day. Some companies are starting the conversation, some are now looking at their policies with an equity lens and they’re updating it. You also have organizations that haven’t even started the conversation. I think progress or success must be defined based on where each organization is on the human equity continuum, which they must define for themselves. But, any organization having a conversation with racial equity as a starting point has begun the journey of success. And, of course, the conversation needs to lead to action. Action is where it’s at.

READ: 2023 Impact Award winners: Diversity, equity & inclusion

Which areas are in need of improvement?

I would still say it’s racial equity. Organizations, individuals, leaders are still afraid to have the race conversation. As much as we talk about Canada being the most diverse – and we have a lot of the ingredients to be best in class in terms of what belonging can look like – we’re far from this. We still haven’t acknowledged the genocide of Indigenous Peoples. So, we still have a lot of work to do. But, if we start having the conversation around the genocide of Indigenous Peoples, if we start the conversation around racial equity, it’s a good indication we want to do the work. 

When you look at the Truth and Reconciliation report, the action steps are there. We should have 100% implementation and success markers from that action plan. That would’ve been a good place to start, but we’re still debating lived experiences. When we try to figure out who deserves full humanity and who doesn’t, we move further behind. Also, for organizations that have updated or changed their policies, my question always is: Have you operationalized that policy? Because a policy on paper does not necessarily mean there will be a cultural shift.

How can a company bake DE&I learning into the culture day-to-day rather than peppering it throughout the year? 

That is where everything comes to the table: your programs, policies, procurement process. Where do I go to source suppliers? Is it always the same circle? This is where disrupting that status quo in terms of your policies and practices comes into play. Maybe you need to add more groups to the table. Are you hiring from the same schools? 

You need to have some learning opportunities, which could be watching a film together, having a discussion guide and embedding the learning throughout. What conferences are your staff going to? Who are you hiring for culture days or empowerment sessions? If you look at the employee experience, your products, your services, there are ways organizations can embed that learning through a cultural equity lens and this will help shift the status quo.

READ: Creating fresh opportunities for women in produce

How should companies with office and front-line staff approach DE&I? 

Every individual can contribute towards cultural norms in the workplace, but research shows we look up to those in power. So, when you look at your C-suite leaders, who are the people having the conversation on diversity, equity and inclusion? How are these leaders demonstrating their commitment to human equity? If leaders have an opportunity to shift the equity status and they’re not doing it, they’re simply upholding the status quo and I would say those leaders are failing the front-line and office staff.

Also, do your front-line employees feel safe to speak up? Will their feedback be weaponized against them, or will they be heard? And are you equipping your leaders with the right skills, the right tools and the right community of support to lead their teams to success?

How do companies bridge the gap between rhetoric and reality?

When you look at cultural equity, it embodies the values, the policies and the practices that ensure people from historically marginalized groups feel like they belong and they're represented, which means that organizations need to be looking at culture change through a cultural equity lens. This means you’ll be having different conversations, you’ll ensure you have different voices at the table and you demonstrate trust by putting into action what you have learned from those groups.

READ: Grocery leaders share how they’re making progress on DE&I

Not everyone is at the same level when it comes to DE&I. How can leadership get everyone on the same page?

Communicate, demonstrate, take action. Make sure there are regular reports on what's happening with policy, programming or product. What's happening at the C-suite level? Demonstrate that accountability by sharing progress updates and status updates. And part of that needs to come from a self-leadership perspective – what are you learning as a leader on your own journey? The learning continues when you become a leader, especially from a place of human equity. But we've all inherited a definition of leadership that says, once you're in that C-suite or you're leading people your learning is done and you should know everything. There is a stat that suggests a leader’s emotional intelligence lessens as they move up the corporate ladder. So, there needs to be a louder conversation around c-suite leaders. Also, what's happening on the people management side or with team leaders? What's happening on the employee side? It should always be thought of in safe circles depending on where you are in terms of your position. Also, there needs to be spaces where everybody can come together and have a conversation in a way where you can track and see the progress being made in terms of the DEI action plan.

How should the grocery industry approach diversity, equity and inclusion, having both office and front-line staff?  

The C-suite carries the cultural power. Yes, every individual can contribute towards cultural norms in the workplace, but research shows we look up to those in power. So, when you look at your C-suite leaders, who are the people having the conversation on diversity, equity and inclusion? How are the leaders in this space demonstrating their commitment to human equity? Are they vocal about it? Have they looked at some of the struggles or opportunities in the grocery industry, in the retail industry? And what are they hoping to shift as part of their leadership legacy in that industry? If leaders have an opportunity to shift the equity status and they're not doing it, they're simply upholding the status quo and I would say those leaders are failing the front-line and office staff. 

READ: DE&I: Putting policy into action

Also, do your front-line employees feel safe enough to speak up? Will their feedback be weaponized against them or will they be heard? And are you equipping your leaders with the right skills, with the right tools and the right community of support so they can lead their teams to success?

If there isn't demonstrated behaviour or expression of values in the C-suite, that inaction and that lack of human equity trickles down to your team leads and the front-line staff because culture is felt. You can sense when employees feel like they belong or they don't belong. C-suite leaders have credibility power and if they're not championing a new way of leading and being in that industry, then they have failed that industry and have lost an opportunity to be the future of what equity could look like in this space.

What recruiting tips do you have for grocers with stores in areas that are, perhaps, less diverse?

I remind folks when we do our training that everybody is diverse. White folks are diverse as well and have been racialized as white with the creation of race as a social structure. Even if the race represented is white, you still have intersectionality [the ways different parts of one’s identity intersect or overlap with one another including race, sexual orientation and gender]. 

READ: How brands can better connect with multicultural consumers

If a company has a national reach and in this geographic space you only have folks who have been racialized as white, for example, how do you get exposure to other cultures? This is where you connect with other groups from within your organization or your community. How are you involved with your community groups and community organizations? The other thing I would say is you don’t need to have other races to start talking about diversity, equity and inclusion. The absence of other races provides individuals with the opportunity to think about how they can expose themselves, their team and their organization to other cultures. There’s a unique opportunity to think outside of the box in terms of how you can get that insight or that learning.

How do you measure the success of a DE&I policy?

Frequently measure feedback! What are your employees saying? What is the employee voice? And is the employee voice authentic? I’m sure a lot of organizations during the last couple of years have discovered there is racial discrimination or that employees don’t feel psychologically safe in the workplace. But prior to that they all had Best in Workplace awards because there was a mask. The employee voice is extremely important, but employees need to feel safe. We know, historically, that HR is not a safe space for employees. Even the data HR collects isn’t necessarily a true reflection of how employees feel. Employees say what the organizations would like to hear because that feels safer versus speaking the truth. Especially if in the past the employer hasn’t put into action the feedback that employees have given.

This article first appeared in Canadian Grocer’s August 2023 issue.

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