When I graduated from law school, all I knew about the legal profession I was about to enter was that I was going to make more money than all of my immediate family members combined (yes, I come from a small family but, at the time, it still seemed pretty impressive) and I was going to become part of an impressive team of lawyers employed at the fifth-largest law firm in Chicago. Part of my initial learning curve included more than just navigating firm politics, meeting never-ending deadlines, and mastering the myriad of stylistic preferences each of my supervising attorneys insisted I adopt; I also had to learn how to turn the other cheek every time an “inclusion killer” bomb exploded in my face.
What is an inclusion killer? The answer requires an abbreviated tutorial. If you’ve reviewed the diversity section of virtually all law firm websites, one of the first two paragraphs will make reference to the value the firm places on diversity and inclusion and then the discussion ends there. The terms diversity and inclusion are very much separate and distinct, yet many well-meaning law firms fail to fully appreciate the difference. Rather than just reiterating the firm’s definition of diversity, readers should also be provided with a richer understanding of what the inclusion component means. One of the premiere diversity and inclusion consultants, Verna Meyers, captured the concept of diversity and inclusion best with this phrase:
“DIVERSITY is being invited to the party. INCLUSION is being asked to dance.”
Legal employers seem to be doing a much better job than once was the case when it comes to recruiting and hiring diverse attorneys. The struggle that now needs to be addressed is how to retain, and ultimately advance, talent brought into the firm. This is where inclusion killers come into play.
My entire professional career has been based on employment in the legal community, from practicing law to working with Chicago’s largest law firms in an effort to help them advance their internal diverse attorney initiatives. In my various roles, I have personally experienced and/or witnessed four genres of inclusion killers: (1) language, (2) implicit bias, (3) micro inequities, and (4) something I call “birds of a feather flock together.” This article is limited to addressing language in the workplace and how certain words and phrases can create a less-than-welcoming environment. The remaining categories will be addressed in future installments.
It is imperative that we set the proper tone, not only in what we do and say, but also in how we say it. In a meeting I attended several years ago, attorney performance bonuses were being discussed. After a long day of crunching numbers, the attorney leading the discussion asked meeting participants to take one last look at the numbers to make sure we hadn’t been “niggardly.” I remember, like it was yesterday, the demoralizing impact the attorney’s poor word choice had on me. When the word dropped, any belief I was regarded as a valued team member vanished. I am Black and, like many others, despise the N-word, its derivatives, and words that sound alarmingly similar.
Yes, the definition of niggardly has nothing to do with race, but use of the word is analogous to announcing to a room full of people that you spent the weekend looking for “faggots” rather than just saying “bundles of sticks.” It is important to remember that even though the person you are speaking to may not be a member of the group directly offended by a word or phrase, they may also be offended.
Why is a place of employment that places a premium on inclusiveness important? Happy and valued employees are productive employees; productive employees add value to the company’s bottom line. The cost of employee attrition is staggering. By some estimates, law firms lose approximately $400,000 for each mid-level associate who decides to seek employment elsewhere.
If you encounter words, phrases, and commentary that are offensive, you are encouraged to use the situation as an opportunity to provide a teachable moment. In most cases, the remarks are not meant to be offensive, so it is perfectly acceptable to help the speaker out by sharing how and why you were offended. A truly inclusive work environment will not penalize employees for sharing their viewpoint. Instead of thinking of tempering speech as a form of political correctness, think of it in the context of the practice of law, where careful word choices can make the difference between a successful or negative outcome.