For many years, Vernā Myers has consulted and lectured on diversity and inclusion in the workplace. She recently sat down with founding editor Rick Pullen and editor in chief Sandy Laycox to talk about her views and experiences. Shortly after our interview, she was hired as vice president for inclusion strategy at Netflix. —Editor
When Vernā Myers landed her first job as a lawyer, in Boston in 1985, she was the first black person the firm had ever hired.
When you make a mistake with a workplace comment, Myers says, don’t qualify the apology.
Myers believes we can’t make progress without first acknowledging our biases.
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Who is Vernā Myers?
I grew up in Baltimore, which is significant in the sense that I was gone for 32 years and I made a conscious decision to move back home. I went up to high school here and then left to go to college in New York. Then I went to law school in Boston. I got married, had a baby and was practicing as a lawyer.
I ultimately started working on diversity and inclusion. I was first an executive director of an organization that dealt with diversity in the legal field, and then I worked for the attorney general of Massachusetts as his deputy chief of staff.
Finally, I went out on my own and created my own consulting business, mostly for legal professionals. It guided them on how to create more diverse and inclusive workplaces.
Was working on diversity and inclusion a conscious decision or a job?
I graduated in 1985 from Harvard Law School. I went to my law firm, and I was the only black person they had ever hired.
In Boston, I was actually pretty shocked by it. I had no idea I would be breaking the color line in 1985. It seemed strange to me. Nevertheless, as law firms go it was a fine experience. But, little by little, I started to think that it wasn’t the best environment for me.
How long have you been consulting?
It must be working.
Well, that’s a good question. I have enjoyed what I’m doing. I never knew it would become something this essential to business. I was always a little worried it could be a flash in the pan. But it just keeps evolving into something that is really important and not just an issue.
Have you seen a change in the last two years since Trump was elected?
That’s a good question. We just put out a white paper about five rules for meeting inclusively in a politically tough time. I’m in companies usually—almost always—where the leaders have said, “Come make us better.” So they are acknowledging there’s some strife, there’s discord, and maybe people are saying things.
One of the most difficult things is to get people not to say bad things about Trump in the workplace. In some workplaces, if you support Trump you’re like persona non grata. And that’s not fair.
It’s not OK to insist a person have a certain political leaning. People should be able to believe whatever they believe. What you say and do in the workplace is a different story. As a leader, you have to demand—if you say you’re into inclusion and diversity—that diverse voices be heard but that they be delivered in respectful ways. Bias is not tolerated.
This is important if people are going to figure out how to work well together. The workplace is kind of the last place where diversity has an opportunity to flourish. One thing that really works well for people with differences is to have a common goal, to work on something together.
In many cases, people leave work and they go to their silos, to neighborhoods where they are well represented. Many people do not live, and have never lived, in any kind of integrated neighborhood. Still, in the United States, there are very few. So the workplace becomes a place where we have an opportunity to teach people, for people to become aware, to get closer and face their discomfort instead of getting uncomfortable.
So how do you create that kind of environment where we don’t all agree but we agree to be kind and respectful and inclusive? Where we agree to let go of assumptions and biases and stereotypes against people? It’s a hard balance, but it’s something leaders have to figure out how to do.
We all basically think of ourselves as good, moral people, but you talk about taking that next step to recognize what we are missing.
I’d like to see us go deeper. But to go deeper you have to have more skills. Because if you try to go deep and you don’t know how to talk and if you don’t have awareness about other people’s backgrounds, you can blow it up. The only way I think people go from being, like, “nicey-nicey” to authentic is for you to take risks.
You’ve got to decide that everybody’s culture is valid, even though you may not agree with everything. Your culture is not superior. That’s a hard thing for people to do.Tweet
But it has to be mutual. People have to learn basic cultural competency skills. You’ve got to decide that everybody’s culture is valid, even though you may not agree with everything. Your culture is not superior. That’s a hard thing for people to do. Once you do it, you talk differently, you’re more curious, you ask questions.
Notice your own biases. That’s an important skill, to be able to see your own cultural lens. There are certain kinds of skills and competencies that enable us to be more authentic, but people have to want to do it and it has to be mutual and it has to be modeled. It’s just not easy.
I used to take the train into Boston, and there was a fellow passenger who was blind. Every day he was on the platform, and no one says anything to him. Never says anything. Because they think he can’t see them. So you just go on acting as if he doesn’t exist.
My blind friend said people talk to his dog but they don’t talk to him. Because people know dogs but they don’t know blind people. Can you imagine how discounting that is? You’re like “Hey, doggie, doggie,” and then there’s a person, a human, with the dog, but you only talk to the dog.
We’re scared of what we don’t understand or know.
We don’t know. We are going to make mistakes, constantly. Stop expecting and pretending to know. Even with race, there are reasons why we don’t know stuff. It’s not because we’re bad. It’s because—and I’m not a conspiracy theorist—but people of power have decided whose story to tell and how to tell it.
So let’s not talk about it. Let’s not talk about the GI Bill. Let’s not talk about American Indians. Let’s not let people know that we basically made Chinese people work for free to build railroads.
I was in Montgomery, Alabama, where my friend has created the Legacy Museum. It’s amazing. It’s very sad and also amazing what he’s doing. But I did not know as much about the domestic slave trade. I knew about Triangular Trade that brought slaves to the U.S. But I didn’t know about the domestic slave trade in the U.S., where our country decides, after the international slave trade is abolished, to continue to trade slaves within the U.S.
So we couldn’t get more slaves, anymore, but we sold them up and down the East Coast and the West. We made them build railroads so they could be transported. We pulled a bunch of free black people from the North and sold them.
So a lot of times the conclusions that people put together about race and about culture and about black people, about Hispanics, is devoid of a lot of facts. And so we pretend to know. We pretend to be cool with stuff. But if we really knew, we would be devastated. And that’s why there’s this whole movement. People are just starting to see what is real about our country.
I got to college and went to the bookstore, and there were like three rows of novels and science and political theory written by black people I didn’t even know existed.
I didn’t even know about the Harlem Renaissance. I didn’t know anything. So it’s not just white people who don’t know. Black people don’t know. And it influences their sense of self.
So stop pretending to know. If you pretend to know, then you don’t get curious and you don’t ever know and then you’re just trying to hide your ignorance all the time. And then there is the idea of apology. So when you make a mistake, learn to apologize. Don’t hide behind your intent.
The other really huge thing is that—and this is happening a lot in the workplace—people make mistakes, they say the wrong thing. They say something like, “For a mother, you’re doing an incredible job.” Or they say, “You should be really happy to get this promotion. You must have been really surprised.” And they’ll say that to a black person who has been working their tail off and thinks of [himself] as very deserving.
Or they’ll say things like, to an Asian American, “Your English is really good.” But that person grew up in Jersey. It’s like, “Why do you think every Asian person is foreign? They’ve been here for a long time.”
So when someone replies, “That’s offensive,” they say, “Well, that’s not what I intended.” Which is legit, but it takes away an apology. Or they say, “Sorry, that’s not what I meant. You took that wrong. You’re overly sensitive.” That takes away from the apology.
In many cases, people leave work, and they go to their silos, to neighborhoods where they are well represented. Many people do not live, and have never lived, in any kind of integrated neighborhood.Tweet
You have to be more interested in the impact of what you’re saying than your intent. Mistakes are OK, because if people are constantly like, “I don’t want to make a mistake,” it really means they don’t interact. Because you can’t hear what’s wrong. You don’t know what you’re missing. You can’t see how people are doing things differently.
Go somewhere and make yourself a minority. Stay engaged. Start the dance of engagement. You purposely create friendships. You purposely go to different parts of town. You purposely read books about other groups. You engage.
There is a story about an Asian kid working at a law firm who came into a cafeteria, and one of the partners says to him, “OK, you need to stop right now what you’re eating and you need to go. You need to do this, and you need to do that.” The kid is like, “I have no idea who this is or what he’s telling me to do.” So he doesn’t say anything. He tries to figure out who the guy thinks he’s talking to. When he does figure out the guy who the partner thought he was talking to, he calls him and says, “Look, man, I don’t know what’s up, but there’s something happening on your matter and you better figure it out.”
That guy then calls the partner and says, “Look, no big deal, but I think you thought you were talking to me in the cafeteria. Can you tell me what I need to do?” The partner is mortified. After the deal, the partner never works with that guy again.
That’s the disengagement that happens because people are so mortified that they’re human and they made a mistake. Instead, you should be like, “OK, man, you know what? My bad. Can we go to lunch? I owe you this.”
Basically you’ve been working with a person who you haven’t been paying attention to. Now you really need to dig in instead of pulling back.
Basically, he doubled down instead of making things better.
Yes. I call that adding insult to injury. Many organizations I’m involved in, the power brokers at the top are white, male and straight. If they decide they are so uncomfortable because of some mistake they made, they ruin your opportunities. So you must find somebody else to work with or you’ve got to tiptoe around this person because they’re tiptoeing around you. It doesn’t work well.
Diversity and inclusion are good from a moral sense. From a business sense, how do you make that case?
It’s interesting, because for me the business case, or rationale, is multifaceted. I don’t care which reason is most compelling to you. There are so many. You’ve just got to find one. For example, we feel fairly certain from every study that groupthink cannot be broken up by people who think the same.
The whole concept of competitive edge is based a lot on a company’s ability to come up with a different product, a new way of doing things, some kind of innovation, a different framework, or whatever. That requires diversity of thought. Diversity of thought is very closely linked to diversity in life experience.
It’s how you solve problems. So you might have a super technical problem, but you can get a janitor who knows nothing about the field who understands something about how plumbing works who can help solve a technical problem.
Businesses have found when they started doing open-source stuff—trying to solve certain problems—some of the people who came up with the best solutions weren’t in the field. So you’re applying a different approach to solving problems.
Team effectiveness is another argument for inclusion. If you’re going to have diversity, you’re not going to have effectiveness unless you’ve got the inclusion part. Because if you put a bunch of people together and they’re different but they don’t know how to really work across differences, it’s not going to work.
So once you decide you want diversity, then you’ve got to go for inclusion. A lot of our companies have clients that are steadily changing. So if you’re going to come up with a product, how are you going to relate well to a diverse, larger-society customer base? How are you going to do that if you don’t have people within your system who think like or have a similar experience to those who you’re trying to serve?
There are now enough companies that have made enough mistakes and now recognize they need other people informing them on a lot of their decisions. It’s not necessarily about that kind of book intelligence. It’s about the ability to see things differently.
So who is going to make a difference in our business? We don’t understand what’s changed. You are especially vulnerable if your business fails to have inroads, doesn’t have networks and doesn’t have the right language.
You have to believe you’ve been missing something. But it’s hard to believe you’re missing something when you’re doing well.Tweet
Does it really matter for people to have someone who looks like them sell them insurance?
Some clients would like to have someone who thinks like them. When you’re girlfriends with the person you’re doing business with, it can’t hurt. I started to realize that’s why men don’t want us to change things. Because it’s not just that they are doing business with each other; they become friends and they trust each other. Their kids go to the same schools, and they hang out and they do whatever. It makes doing business and working so much more fun.
Our business is based on trust.
If your social and business professional circles are really small, then you actually think there’s only one option of the kind of person who you would trust. But if you have a much broader base, you would see that isn’t limited to race or gender. It’s just a different possibility for a relationship.
But it is also true that I feel like in some situations—like insurance, banking and medicine—people of color are suspicious, and they have good reasons to be suspicious. There are all these studies now on how doctors treat black people differently than they do white people—and not as good. There are ways in which black people have been taken for granted and taken advantage of when it comes to insurance.
So, in many cases, having someone who has a similar background as you gives that person the benefit of the doubt. But they also may tell you things that make you feel more comfortable. They understand your life in a particular way. It’s a certain kind of way people get to relate. If you’re in the trust business, I think it’s important.
The problem is we’ve advantaged one group. You’re limiting your talent base, but you have to believe that. This is the hardest part, I think, for super successful companies. You have to believe you’ve been missing something. But it’s hard to believe you’re missing something when you’re doing well.
Our industry has a lot of success. How do you get people who are using their own networks, working with people just like them, that they’re comfortable with, to look beyond? How can they be compelled to recognize they are missing something?
They have to see the writing on the wall. That majority will turn into a minority. That’s just the truth. The world has shifted. So how well are they going to be able to do down the line?
Maybe it takes a situation that doesn’t work well for you to notice. There was a case where a guy had been selling insurance to a family forever. The husband died. He thought he’d keep the client. The wife said no: “For 25 years you’ve never even looked at me in these conversations. You’ve never listened to me. I will be getting a new agent.”
That’s the kind of stuff where people start to realize. They made assumptions that they’ll always have this opportunity. More interracial families are happening every day. So now you start telling jokes to a man and he has black children. Or you start saying something, and he’s gay or he has a transgender daughter. That’s going to be a problem.
Those kinds of things make people realize they must make change. But, quite frankly, you must get there on your own in your own life experiences. Leaders have to decide it’s important to the company.
The insurance industry struggles to attract young people—even white young people.
On the recruitment side of things, I think, one is that we’re often looking for ourselves. Which is to say we think we’re looking for excellence, but what we’re really doing is hiring according to preference. So it’s who we prefer to work with, who we think is a fit, who we think—and usually fits—are people who are like us.
Fits our company culture.
Yes. Now, if your company culture has been monocultural for a very long time, it is unlikely that you will see yourself in someone who looks different. If you do, that person will come in and be successful.
You’ve got to get in the door first. Which means that I’m always telling people, “Look at your criteria. Make sure it’s not you and your gut that you’ve identified as the competencies a person should have.”
Then don’t over-hire. Don’t find somebody with an MBA if all you need is a BA. This happens a lot if you’re an outsider or come from a different racial background. They ask, “Are they really smart enough?” So your new hire will have an MBA…yet you just hired a white person who has only a BA.
We need standards, but we need to be suspicious of what you call standards. For example, if someone doesn’t have on the right clothes, can’t you just tell them? Instead, you’re going to be like: if you fit here, you would know you don’t have on the right clothes.
Isn’t that a boss’s insecurities? “I don’t know you well enough, and I don’t know your culture well enough.”
You can make mistakes in this regard. However, if you see a person with promise and potential, we usually give them the hard stuff as well as the praise. If that’s what you do with everybody, don’t not do it with someone who’s different. You may need to do more to make sure that person understands you’re not acting out of bias. You may need to make sure that that person gets what they need. Really offer support and feedback.
A lot of people just don’t know the workplace. They’ve been excluded for a really long time.
When we start talking about privilege, lots of people just get freaked out. They think I’m saying they didn’t work hard. Like, yeah, you worked hard. But those ladies who are at the bus stop at 6 a.m. and are working three jobs—they’re working hard, too.Tweet
So it’s a problem that perpetuates itself for lack of diversity?
It’s hard to get started if you don’t have diversity. People have lots of potential. They may not come in the perfect package right now. And certainly if you want to really work on diversity and inclusion, you’re going to have to see through the packaging and help make some adjustments. Because, quite frankly, all of us had people to help us make some adjustments.
What about those who can’t make the connections because of their privilege?
That has blown my mind, to see really intelligent people not be able to make those connections. I don’t know if it feels too destabilizing. When we start talking about privilege, lots of people just get freaked out. They think I’m saying they didn’t work hard. Like yeah, you worked hard. But those ladies who are at the bus stop at 6 a.m. and are working three jobs—they’re working hard too. And you have to ask yourself, how well were you positioned to take advantage of your hard work? It’s not whether you worked hard. It’s about no matter how hard my father worked, up until 1957 he was not allowed to be a firefighter. It didn’t matter how brave he was.
Or to get an education.
Or to be a lawyer. I mean women couldn’t even go to Harvard Law School until 1953. It didn’t matter what an incredible jurist they would make. Women weren’t even allowed to vote until the last century. My father couldn’t get a job that your father could get. This stuff is all iterative. Consequently, my father, who was discriminated against getting many good-paying jobs, today struggles financially at 92. That means my generation must help him. That puts my generation at a disadvantage.
So when people ask why black people can’t get it together, remember this: in Baltimore, free men who were working on the docks and making great money used it to buy a house and to take care of their kids. So we’re working on the same docks, but my money is going to buy my relatives out of slavery. These are not the same worlds. We are not on the same platforms.
How do you answer the argument that slavery was 150 years ago? By now blacks should be equal, or they should be able to stand on their own two feet? I hear those arguments all the time.
Go back as recent as 1950 and the ’60s. Let’s just go to Jim Crow. In Isabel Wilkerson’s book The Warmth of Other Suns, she explains why six million black people moved out of the South over a period of years to escape discrimination. People say blacks are not immigrants, but they are.
They were looking for more opportunity and looking for safety, because they were being lynched. And those are either our fathers or our grandfathers, right?
Black teachers made something like $10 a month. White teachers made 10 times that. All you’ve got to do is add up the decades of that money, which is why there is still just a huge financial gap.
People don’t know that, when you came back from the war as a black doctor, you still could not practice medicine in the South. You had to go all the way to California. That’s why there are some wealthier black folks on the West Coast. Most black people grew up in the South. So that is where the oppression remained.
How do you make up for hundreds of years of not having opportunity?
How do you deal with that on a personal level?
I feel like I am the beneficiary. As a beneficiary, I can’t afford to be mad.
Why can’t you be mad?
I can be mad as a feeling but not as a way of being or in the way of just carrying myself in life. There are some people who I don’t begrudge if they’re pissed. They’re at bottom. I’m not at bottom. I managed through a lot of people’s sacrifice to be here. So I need to put all my energy into making it better for others.
I don’t want to take on—no one can take on—all this injustice internally. Sometimes I’m just like bewildered. Sometimes I’m not. But those are emotions I give myself a very short time to dwell in. There’s just too much work to do.
What about people who say, “I didn’t own slaves. It’s not my fault.”
No, it’s not your fault. This is not about who’s at fault. The question is how comfortable are you living in a world with such deep inequity? Today. Right now. In this space. That’s all I want to know.
It might be helpful for you to go back and think about the ways you’ve been positioned. I just need you to have some compassion. They just don’t know exactly what they should do. That’s my audience. My audience is not people who want to keep their eyes closed and want to keep themselves safe and cordoned into their way of seeing the world. They want to understand. So you’ve finally hired the diverse workforce. Now you don’t know what to do with it.
Walk a CEO through this. What’s next?
Most CEOs are asking me: “Is there something wrong with our culture that we have people come but they’re not having a good time?” Your culture reflects. There are aspects of your culture that’s very good, but it reflects a very singular, narrow kind of monocultural way of being.
There are lots of cultural differences that people bring. Even people right now who pretend that they’re having a good time in your company—they might actually benefit from you thinking about how to make that culture much more inclusive.
It’s about no matter how hard my father worked, up until 1957 he was not allowed to be a firefighter. It didn’t matter how brave he was.Tweet
What that means is people are coming into the environment, they feel welcomed, they feel like they belong. They’re expected to be good. They’re respected in how people use language and in the policies and the practices, like what holidays you’re celebrating or what food you serve.
I was just talking to a client about where they choose to have business outings, on what dates, whether they’re accessible for disability, is it a part of town that people feel safe in? Certain people do, other people don’t.
Is your system set up so the only people who get heard are those who are boisterous and aggressive? Or do you have the kind of skill to conduct a meeting where you actually are hearing from people with different personality types?
Or maybe you’re dealing with a person who’s from a deferential culture. Maybe they’re not going to interrupt, because they’re showing deference to you.
Are you the type who insists if someone has a conflict they come directly to you? There are other types of communication styles that are indirect, or there are less emotional styles or more emotional styles. This is the work of creating an environment where people of different backgrounds can thrive. It means you have to pay attention to the ways in which the institution that’s been working well for you is not necessarily going to work as well for others.
And it’s about mutual adaptation. What I have noticed is the people who are new to the workplace or who are underrepresented in it or are historically excluded, they know a lot more about adapting. So they know how to tolerate difference. But the group that is in the majority, that haven’t had to make adjustments, are not very skilled.
You’ve described whites as having this rugged individualism trait whereas blacks are more team oriented. The big thing now is changing office environments to promote teamwork. It seems like that would fit right in with inclusion.
The real question is what’s in the water? Is it still the individual who comes up with the brilliant idea on their own? Are they still more valued? If I want to go down the hall and ask someone what they think before making a decision, is that going to be used against me?
Cultures can change the structure. You can change how pretty the offices are, but the embedded value is still individualism. Many people, no matter what culture they ultimately come from, have learned the trick of individualism. They have been convinced that’s the only way to get ahead. Now people are talking about soft leadership or emotional intelligence. That goes to the idea of how you involve people in your conversations and decision making. It’s a very powerful skill. But again, it’s about how much it’s valued. And is it going to be valued the same if it comes from a majority person or a minority person?
You’ve cited victims of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. A photo in the newspaper of blacks finding food noted they were looting. A similar photo of whites noted how smart they were to find food.
We don’t even know we do that. We see people on the street and we see them in a predicament and we make a whole story up about them, depending on what they look like.
Teamwork and countless meetings can take a lot more time to accomplish something. Talk about that.
I was reading the book Essentialism. It’s really interesting. The author is an essentialist, which means he only spends time doing things that he thinks are productive. For example, he says something like, “This is not going to be a good meeting for me. I’m only going to stay for 20 minutes because I have better things to do.” He believes if the workplace allowed people to be responsible and professional and do only what is best for them, we would have more productive workplaces.
I’m such a non-essentialist, this book was such a challenge for me. At first I thought he’s awfully selfish. But by the time I got to the end, I realized what he was saying.
He’s trying to be productive.
Not only that. He believes he has a calling to do something no one else but he can do. He believes this is true about everyone else as well. He says too many of us are wasting our time trying to make people happy and we’re not getting to the core aspect of who we are and what we were meant to do and to give to the organization.
He has some really good techniques. He was talking about, if you’re trying to solve a problem, most people are going to attack the biggest part of the problem. He says no, solve the smallest pieces of the problem that you can. Go for the thing you can fix first. Never occurred to me, but it makes sense.
I talk about introversion and extroversion a lot. I talk about different communication skills. I talk about deference. I talk about conflict management. All the things that I know are influenced by culture.
Culture’s a big idea. It’s not just about ethnic background. It’s about your values, your personality, what you think is beautiful, what you grew up understanding and ways you have changed who you are based on that.
Helping people to see themselves as cultural beings is a lot of my work. If you think you’re just normal, you don’t understand a lot of your decisions and judgments. Your social circle is based on your culture.
People say, “I love culture. I wish I had one.”
You have a culture, and it’s shaping everything you do. If I can get people to see that, then they start getting more suspicious, more conscious and more curious. And if they can do that, they let new ideas in. And that makes their world shift.
You just have to know where you are. You’ve got to be willing to be wrong. You’ve got to be willing to examine your background. You have to be willing to say you’re sorry. As long as you do that, you can build some really powerful, authentic relationships.Tweet
As a boss, how do you relate to a person who is different from you?
This person may feel isolated. So you ask yourself, “How do I get to know this person as an individual? How do I build a relationship with this person?” You bring no assumptions but also are clear you are open and interested in hearing anything about what difference might mean for this individual.
Don’t say, “Hey, you’re black. Is it different?” Instead, say things like, “Hey, I grew up this way and blah blah blah, and I really think this, and I really like this. What are you interested in?” The relationship is important because you’re trading information. You share who you are, and you’re asking them to share, just like any other relationship. And you start to build trust.
The second thing is, you start to make sure that it’s clear to that person that you’re invested in them. You’re going to make a mistake at some point, but the fact you’ve shown your commitment, the willingness to listen, that will smooth out your mistake.
So then one day you’re out late at night, and you say something like, “Well, black people really seem like this.” The person looks at you. You notice they’ve got a different face. You’re like, “What? Did I just step in it?” They’ll say something, and, depending on your response, you’ll be giving them a cue you’re either up for the difference or you’re not.
You just have to know where you are. You’ve got to be willing to be wrong. You’ve got to be willing to examine your background. You have to be willing to say you’re sorry. As long as you do that, you can build some really powerful, authentic relationships. And it won’t be with everyone and you cannot make everyone happy and you cannot make decades of injustice go away.