DE&I leader Joy Fitzgerald wants to hear your authentic truth

Joy Fitzgerald has always advocated for everybody else. In her forthcoming book, she reminds people leaders to advocate for their needs, too.
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Grant Thomas

· 4 min read

Joy Fitzgerald knows a thing or two about getting things done. The UnitedHealth Group SVP and chief DE&I officer told us that her colleagues would describe her as an advocate: A fierce proponent of speaking truth to power, she often champions causes that others avoid.

But Fitzgerald hasn’t always been comfortable speaking her truth. She’s always been more comfortable standing up for others. She recalled a moment earlier in her career when colleagues embraced a new DE&I initiative that advanced gender inclusion, but dragged their feet on a parallel race initiative. The lone person of color in the room, Fitzgerald thought, “Do I speak up? What will it cost me?”

She did speak up, offering examples from conversations with her diverse colleagues to explain the importance of such an initiative. Fast-forward to today, and Fitzgerald wants HR pros to feel as comfortable advocating for themselves as they are for others. She aims to help them do so with her forthcoming book, Finding Authentic Rhythm: How to Win on Your Terms in Corporate America, out in February.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What do you want people to take away from this book?

Spending the intentional time of figuring out who you are [and] your purpose in life, and that can transcend beyond a career. I talk a lot in the book about particularly being raised in the South. I thought the only winning criteria for success was really performance. I had no clue about this whole relationship-capital concept of what it meant to have visibility opportunities and how to leverage those to truly accelerate and differentiate myself.

Then…[surround] yourself with individuals who will help to develop, nourish, and build your dreams…And lastly, when you are authentic, when you find your rhythm, you will find your peace and ultimately become liberated. And you will give others the encouragement to do the same.

What advice would you give to an HR pro who struggles to build genuine relationships in the workplace?

HR is one of the toughest areas, in my opinion, to work in an organization and it’s a two-fold kind of issue. People see you as the organizational police to one degree, so you’re either the non-trusted group, or you are the group that everyone feels should “have it right.” So there’s very little room for failure.

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If you’re really good in HR, you are that bridge between the business, but also the culture in the workplace. The challenge that I’ve had is that who is the bridge for HR professionals? And how often are we given the time to be vulnerable and to be seen as employees who are deserving and needing of help? Because we’re always providing that support and assistance and thought equity and leadership to the enterprise.

How can HR leaders be or ask for the space to be vulnerable?

A real moment for me [was] when George Floyd was murdered. I will never forget this. It was that evening. Being in the DE&I role, it was a long 24 hours trying to figure out the organizational response, and how do we support the enterprise?

I remember, for the first time in my career, my leader called, and I thought he was going to want to talk about how we should respond. And he said, “I want to know how you are doing. I don’t want to talk about work. As a mother of a Black son and as an African American female. How is Joy? Are you okay?”

And tears began to slide down my face because no one had ever asked me that question. I always felt like I always had to be on and that I don’t get to be the human—the individual that’s deserving of that conversation. And it became a catalyst moment for me to think about why did that ignite that reaction? Because I’m not an easy crier. I needed that moment. I needed to be seen. I needed to be heard. I needed to be asked and acknowledged. For HR professionals, my advice then and my advice now [is] we need to do more of that for one another, and to provide safe spaces, regardless of what’s happening—and it doesn’t take a big external event, or it shouldn’t—for us to check in on our colleagues.

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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.