Inside SHRM Inclusion 2021: Our top takeaways

There was some notable friction at the gathering of HR professionals, which included strategy sessions, vendor demos, and speakers including Kal Penn and Gretchen Carlson.
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Courtesy Kayla Prasek

· 5 min read

Near the end of October, I joined over 500 HR professionals in Austin at SHRM Inclusion, an annual conference promoted by the organization as being a way to empower the people profession to go beyond “traditional diversity, equity and inclusion practices.” The three-day schedule was jam-packed with panel discussions, strategy sessions, demos from vendors, and much needed breaks to BYOB (build your own bouquet).

Since the summer of racial reckoning in 2020, many organizations have prioritized DE&I initiatives—but there is still a long way to go. Read on for the top takeaways from SHRM Inclusion.

You’re speaking my language: In June 2020, a Gallup survey found that more Americans viewed “race relations” as the “most important problem” facing the country than at any time since 1968. However, Americans didn’t share a common vocabulary around DE&I: Many did not understand the terms “white privilege” or “anti-racist” before, and others only had a vague idea about why diversity mattered for their organization. Last year, the DE&I industry put in massive work to explain the importance of its role to HR.

None of the sessions I attended began by defining terms related to DE&I or pitching the importance or ROI of diversity. Everyone was on board. It appears we’ve moved past step one.

Talk not tech: Throughout the conference, the terms “emotional intelligence,” “empathy,” “psychological safety,” and “ally” came up repeatedly. AI might have us beat in a game of chess, but humans are still superior at cocking our heads, giving a sympathetic nod, and saying, “Go on.”

Speakers emphasized that HR will get the farthest by listening to employees and assuming they are coming to conversations with good intentions. Speaker Kenston Henderson, founder and CEO of Live With Lyfe and leader of the session “Winning Conversations: How to Communicate Successfully and Courageously about Race,” acknowledged that he used to go into conversations “guns blazing,” before he realized he was “losing too many people that way.” Now he tries to find common ground, even if it means swallowing a reply he might want to say.

Battle plans: During the numerous coffee breaks, brain bites, and networking sessions, I asked attendees what they were most excited to glean from sessions. In a word: strategy. HR professionals are often tackling DE&I not as their full job, but as just one more task on their overfilled plates.

Divya Sriram, senior talent manager at Right Management, attended the conference in hopes of getting clear marching orders to take back to the office.

“I love that the sessions have been action-oriented,” Sriram told HR Brew. Specifically, she liked having things like goal-setting worksheets to take home.

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“I like the focus on goal clarity and measuring success monthly, quarterly, and annually. moving beyond conversation to action, and the focus on different forms of diversity,” Sriram said.

Other sessions incorporated roleplays on how to talk to staff, short documentaries, and training on pay equity.

Diverse takes on diversity: Given there were over 75 speakers, including those who joined virtually, we wouldn’t expect them to agree on everything. But, there was some notable friction in the program.

  • Former Fox News host Gretchen Carlson, who has previously made anti-trans comments, addressed the conference during Wednesday morning’s closing session, after Tuesday afternoon was filled with pro-LGBTQIA events, including trans-inclusive sessions like “Moving from Ally to Advocate for Transgender and Non-Binary Employees.” Her original announcement as keynote speaker even sparked backlash among some HR professionals, who questioned Carlson’s presence at an inclusion-focused conference.
  • Politically engaged actor and author Kal Penn spoke about how he hasn’t  forgotten his experience with microaggressions in the workplace and his subsequent reluctance to work with the individuals who made them. In contrast, elsewhere in the program, speakers encouraged attendees to meet coworkers where they were, ask empathetic questions to encourage dialogue when coworkers make insensitive remarks, and approach differing perspectives with compassion. The tension? Just because HR wants employees to be understanding of peers with different worldviews doesn’t mean workers will be so forgiving. SHRM Inclusion left a big question unanswered: How does HR encourage workers to learn to be inclusive without completely alienating them, and simultaneously support the employees who already value DE&I?
  • In a session titled “How to Recognize & Disrupt Bias” attendees were encouraged to be bold, courageous, and lean in to DE&I work. Meanwhile, throughout the conference, lawyers were approaching inclusion through a different lens, with sessions like, “How to Avoid Liability for Doing the ‘Right’ Thing.”

The bottom line: Being a champion of DE&I doesn’t mean you’ll agree with all other advocates in the space—it’s a nuanced field—or be an expert on every aspect of the industry. That said, there is strength in numbers, and HR professionals seemed energized just to be around one another and united in pursuit of the same goal, even if they didn’t necessarily agree on how they’d get there.

“I see people here from all over the country and all kinds of industries,” Leanne Schmidt, a senior human resource officer from North Dakota, told HR Brew, “Like, there are firefighters here. It seems like every single industry got the memo that diversity matters, and that’s really encouraging.”—SV

Quick-to-read HR news & insights

From recruiting and retention to company culture and the latest in HR tech, HR Brew delivers up-to-date industry news and tips to help HR pros stay nimble in today’s fast-changing business environment.