Dear Corporate America: Don’t Erase Us

The COVID-19 pandemic continues to ravage the U.S. at great cost to life and livelihood. Already this country has lost over 150,000 lives to the pandemic and more than 30 million Americans are unemployed, including me, with imminent layoffs around every corner.

Mindy & Anisha at IHG holiday party

One of the biggest challenges with layoffs during this unique time is even understanding the true impact. Especially within businesses that offered their employees the privilege to work remotely there remains perhaps even more confusion which can lead to the spread of misinformation. Typically, during a time of big organizational shifts, restructuring, and layoffs there are org charts and candid communication from leadership. It is further socialized at the smokers’ spot outside or by the office water cooler trickling down information. I never had my water cooler time nor a happy hour to say proper ‘so longs’ and ‘goodbyes.’

My 9 years at IHG were filled with immense development and growth driven by my personal and professional curiosities. When I met someone new it never felt like networking. It felt like I was making a new friend. My leadership in the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DE&I) space helped recruit and retain marginalized candidates — encouraging them to to bring their voices and talent to the table. It made many feel a sense of belonging, community, and home. Yet today many of us are without that home with voices echoing in place in our shelters. It feels like erasure.

This feeling was the impetus for an email exchange with the CEO of IHG, Keith Barr. Getting to know Keith as I had over the years I felt welcomed to reach out to him with a challenge. Below is an excerpt from that exchange.

Keith –
As one of the hundreds of IHGers laid off on Wednesday I wanted to share what an absolute honor of a lifetime it was to work and grow at IHG. During my 9+ years I blazed paths well beyond job descriptions to help evolve a community and culture of diversity, inclusion, and belonging.
I challenge you to never waiver from that commitment <of DE&I>. I challenge you to keep a metaphoric empty seat at the table when making decisions big & small – picturing every face of diversity that made and makes the company what it is and will be.
I know these will be difficult days moving forward. I believe in you and IHG and do not want to see the heart and soul of what made me love this company falter for a moment.
Thank you for your brave and thoughtful leadership.

Hi Mindy! (the sharpest dresser I know!!!)
I really appreciate your note and your challenge to me. I promise to be even more committed to diversity, inclusion and belonging as we continue to make IHG an even better place to work. I hope that we will be able to welcome you back when things improve and wish you health, happiness and success in whatever life brings you.

Throughout the country furloughs and layoffs resulting from the COVID-19 have widely been reported as impacting minority communities in greater numbers. Many of these layoffs are neither seen nor heard. When possible, we are represented through statistics.

Glaringly missing from those statistics is the impact to the LGBTQ+ community. Very few federal surveys collect accurate sexual orientation and gender identity data, which contributes to our limited understanding of economic and employment experiences of LGBTQ+ adults. Even the U.S. Census can only identify less than 17% of the community based on its questions (including same sex marital status and living with a same sex partner). While the old U-Haul joke would make it seem like all lesbians are married — which is counted on the Census — we are not. And let’s face it — not every LGBTQ+ person feels safe to identify their sexual orientation for fear of not knowing how the data will be used.

Pictured with transgender activist Frankie Edwards

But wouldn’t it be revolutionary to be asked? It would give those of us who are brave enough the opportunity to stand up and be counted. It would make the community more visible. It would allow institutions to hold themselves to a higher standard when making hiring and layoff decisions to build and maintain a workforce that is truly diverse, inclusive, and drives equity. Given the new protections of LGBTQ+ employees under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, it would help make acts of discrimination reportable and undisguisable.

As I apply for new roles I am heartened to see more and more companies ask for my pronouns — which are she/her/hers and they/them/theirs. Yet as I get to one of the final questions on the applications about gender, my options are: Male/Female/Prefer Not to Say. I do prefer to say. Many of us do. But the options that are presented do not leave room for round pegs in unyielding square holes. While I understand that companies gather this data to share with the government and to make sure they are maintaining non-discriminatory, ethical, and legal hiring practices — more than 40% of Americans believe that there should be more than 2 gender identity options in forms and online profiles. There needs to be an evolution of this question or the options contained within to give visibility to transgender, non-binary, and gender nonconforming humans especially as it relates to Title VII protections. My personal favorite option is ‘Prefer to Self Describe’ which then offers a text box in which I can proudly respond ‘gender nonconforming.’

John Lewis at Atlanta HRC Gala 2018

In 2018 I finally checked an item off of my bucket list. I met John Lewis at the HRC Gala in Atlanta and he kissed my cheek (after a moving conversation and my nervous request). How can I claim him as a hero and an icon and not believe that I am a part of his legacy? For his legacy to continue to flourish we must all observe the world around us and imagine how it can be better. Maybe I alone don’t have the power to make a meaningful difference, but if I do nothing the only thing guaranteed is that nothing will change. If I do something and someone sees — maybe it will move them to action. And maybe that action inspires another, and another, and another. And suddenly a powerful chorus of voices seek to enact change in their visibility.

When you see something that is not right, not fair, not just, you have to speak up. You have to say something; you have to do something.

John Lewis

Like Billy Bragg sang, “a virtue never tested is no virtue at all.” And when the economy tested corporate America, DE&I roles took a precipitous hit at the start of the COVID-19 crisis.

But something happened at the end of May. People took to the streets, communities, yards, social media, families, and so much more to stand up against a public health crisis — racism in America. Anti-racism became a regular part of every day conversations. The Black Lives Matter movement found new allies and champions. And the movement itself evolved to become more intersectional. It pushed corporate America to realize that it must invest more in their commitment to DE&I initiatives and positions — and not just in dollars. DE&I must become a part of the DNA of doing business. We must not and will not be erased.

And so I challenge all CEOs and leaders in corporate America to keep a metaphoric empty seat at the table when making decisions big & small. Picture the diverse faces of those within your company who don’t feel safe enough to bring their authentic selves to work each day. The culture you create will drive loyalty and make all feel like valued voices in the conversation, improving productivity. Picture those that your business serves. If we don’t see ourselves genuinely represented in your advertising, your website, your product line we will purchase from companies that both see and serve us until there is an authentic move toward inclusion.

…that gives a green light to all who feel disenfranchised, a green light to move forward. It means hope to a nation that has given up, because if a gay person makes it, the doors are open to everyone. So if there’s a message I have to give, it is that I found one overriding thing about my personal election. It’s the fact that if a gay person can be elected, it’s a green light.

And you and you and you, you have to give people hope.

Excerpt from Harvey Milk: The “Hope” Speech

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