Wharton’s Stephanie Creary speaks with Dr. Ella F. Washington — organizational psychologist, practice professor at Georgetown University, and founder of Ellavate Solutions — on the value of DEI and how to be authentic at work while navigating corporate culture.

This episode is part of the Leading Diversity at Work series. Read an article about this episode here.


Are Companies Making Progress on DEI?

Stephanie Creary: Hi, my name is Stephanie Creary, and I’m an assistant professor of management at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, and I’m delighted to welcome you to today’s episode of the Knowledge at Wharton Leading Diversity at Work podcast series, which is focused on cracking the hidden corporate code, navigating the workplace without sacrificing authenticity.

And so joining me today is a very special guest who is also a friend, and so it’s always great to me when I get to have people who I’ve known for a long time here on the show. But she is Dr. Ella Washington. She’s a professor of practice at Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business. She also founder and CEO of Elevate Solutions. A recognized authority in diversity, equity, and inclusion, Dr. Washington has consulted with businesses across industries, including finance, energy, education, and government. She’s written two books. We’ll talk about both today.

Her first book was called The Necessary Journey: Making Real Progress on Equity and Inclusion. And it underscores her dedication to transformative change in workplaces. Her forthcoming book, which is coming out this May is called Unspoken: A Guide to Cracking the Hidden Corporate Code. In this book, she directly assists individuals in navigating the challenges of corporate environments by decoding the implicit rules governing the spaces. She empowers them to overcome obstacles to fulfill their career aspirations.

So welcome Ella, thank you so much for joining me today. It’s just such a pleasure, and honor to have you here on this — as part of this podcast series. So before we get to the new one, the new book, I think it would be really great to talk about your first book. Because I think, as I’ve come to understand it, it set the stage for why you decided to take on this second book in the way that you did. So the first book, The Necessary Journey: Making Real Progress on Equity and Inclusion. Can you share a little bit about the genesis of this book? Why did you decide to write it, and what was the reception to it, or what has the reception to it been like for you?

Ella F. Washington: Well Stephanie, thank you so much for having me, first and foremost. As you said, from knowing each other for many years in this space, it’s always a pleasure when our worlds collide in this beautiful way, right? And so going back to my first book, The Necessary Journey: Making Real Progress on Equity and Inclusion, we have to go back to 2020 in the midst of the pandemic, at the height of the racial reckoning after the murder of George Floyd. And during that summer — as you’ve already noted, I’m both a researcher and a practitioner.

So during that summer, a lot of CEOs and CHROs were reaching out to me to have conversations, either to help them with a town hall they were trying to have about racial equity, or the lack thereof in the organizations. Or they wanted help with their DEI strategies that all of a sudden became really important for them. And I started to notice this trend that no matter what the presentation was, the CEO or other leader in the room would say at the end of my DEI presentation, “That was great, and I’m on board.” But they would pull me aside and say, “You know, I really want to understand where we actually are on the journey.”

So they’re like, “I bought into everything you just shared, but like, really, where are we on the journey?” And then they would say, “How do we compare to other people, right?” And there’s pervasive sense of, we want to get an A, right? We want to know that we’re doing something well, or we want to know how to improve if we’re not at that A level, if we’re not doing our best, right? And once I heard those questions 10, 20, 30 50 plus times in the course of this short month in 2020, you know, I realized that though there were lots of academic papers written by yourself and so many others, and there were a lot of practitioner models, there was something missing, why all of these people who were interested and, you know, really trying to be engaged, were questioning what the journey was all about.

And it made me realize that, you know, for so many years we always said it’s a journey, it’s a journey, it’s a journey. That was a popular saying. But most people didn’t really take the time to understand and unpack what is that actual journey, what does it actually mean to be on a diversity, equity, and inclusion journey. And so all that to say, you know, the research I have been doing for many years prior to this point all kind of culminated in this resource that I wanted to provide to demystify what the DEI journey was all about, and how organizations can make progress.

Creary: Okay, and so the reception? What has the reception to this book been like?

Washington: Yeah, so you know, for me the reception has been wonderful to this book. Leaders have often commented that they feel seen, and they feel like their stories are being told. So in the book is a case study of 10 different organizations that were so gracious for me to look under their hoods and to really see what was going on, the good, and the bad, and the ugly. And I think that level of candor was what a lot of leaders really appreciated.

Because it’s so easy to feel like, oh, you have to be perfect, you have to get everything exactly right. But that’s not really what a journey is all about. And I think, you know, the way that I presented these case studies in my book really helped make it feel accessible to people. And for them to feel like, okay, I can do this too, or our organization is not perfect, but we can still make progress as well.

Creary: Yeah, so I would be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge the correct context. One in which I would say people who are very anti-DEI have a very loud megaphone. And are amplifying messages that suggest that this journey isn’t one that we should be on. I’ve spent a lot of time talking to academics and practitioners about the current context, and many of us who have been around for a while like yourselves acknowledge that there’s always been resistance to diversity, equity and inclusion. In fact, there’s an entire volume, edited volume, Keisha Thomas’s book on diversity resistance in organizations that was published in 2008.

And so what doesn’t seem new is that people are, you know, not pro-DEI initiatives, or pro-the journey. They’re actually thinking that we shouldn’t be engaging in this. What feels different is sort of the lack of — the presence of more voice around this issue from those who don’t care about this topic so much in ways that felt like perhaps before they were just pretending that they were engaged or they were just remaining silent. And so I’m thinking of all that as I ask my follow up question to you, which is if you were to add another chapter to this book, The Necessary Journey, and that somehow acknowledge where we are now as compared to where you were when you wrote this in sort of this more favorable external environment for DEI, what would that chapter be about?

Washington: Yeah, it’s such a good question. And for me, when I think about a book, it’s a static thing, right? It’s like, oh, I wish I could have added this or that, or I wish I would have known this would have happened six months later. And so if I could go back and add something to the book, it would be on focusing on accountability and maintaining your DEI values in times of change, you know? To your point, when the book was written, there was a lot of excitement for this journey, and people said that, “We know it’s going to be hard, but we’re committed for the long term.” And we haven’t quite seen that, right? Across the board.

And so I would write a chapter on how to navigate those sticky moments when your stakeholders in your organization, maybe they’ve had a change of opinion or customers are complaining because they heard something on a particular news station and they don’t particularly understand it, right? And how that connects with your business. I would also encourage people to be more transparent internally, right? I think that a lot of the smoke and mirrors that happened with the rush to put out DEI statements or a rush to make these big pushes, and the reverse now that’s happening, you know, behind the curtains of not refilling that chief diversity officer role, or these ERG groups no longer having the same resources and budgets allocated.

There should be more transparency through the whole process. And the reality is that sometimes businesses do have to pivot and shift, right? For different reasons. Though we don’t encourage that, we know that happens. But that level of transparency still should be had if you want your employees to trust you for the long term.

What Is the Future of DEI?

Creary: Okay, so one more question about this book before we move on to talking about the second, and that is, how hopeful or pessimistic are you at this moment in time about the future state of diversity, equity, and inclusion practices in organizations?

Washington: You know, I’ll quote one of our shared mentors, Ella Bell, and say, you know, history and time is on our side. And by that, we are not new to this resistance around DEI. And we know that the pendulum will continue to swing. Even when we’re seeing it unearth in ways that maybe aren’t so familiar, when you look at the big picture of what’s happening here, we’ve seen it before, and unfortunately we’ll see it again. And so I have to be optimistic to do this work, Stephanie, because I think if I wasn’t, I don’t know how I could get up every day.

But I am really optimistic. Now, I think we’re in for some tough times in the years to come, right? With the laws being changed, as we see the ramifications of that. But ultimately, I do believe in humanity. I do believe that we’re all after the same thing. And when it comes to workplaces, we should all be in environments that we can thrive. And to me, that is the core of the work at least that I do, is really just to elevate humanity in the workplace. And so I’m still optimistic.

Creary: And so I think humanity’s on our side, but the evidence is also on our side too, right? So if I think about, you know, work that I’ve done or work that some of our other friends have done, is we’ve found that when you don’t have diversity, equity, inclusion practices in place, everyone’s experience of the workplace is less positive and/or more negative. And so while the current discourse has suggested that DEI practices are favoring some groups, right? In their workplace success, relative to others. What we actually know is that there is a difference in the employee experience as a whole across demographic groups in organizations that have DEI practices in place and those that don’t.

And so what my perception of this current context has been, people have taken certain diversity practices, for example, like hiring, and they’ve decided that that’s the sum total of what we do from a DEI practices perspective. They don’t recognize, because they don’t have enough facility with the conversation. They don’t know about — you mentioned employee resource groups. They don’t know about mentorship and sponsorship programs.

They don’t know about all the things that diversity practices actually contribute to culture building. And so from my perspective, you know, the evidence is also going to — those of us who know and consume evidence and don’t reject evidence, it would tell us that diversity practices are important and they are here to stay. I don’t know what your thoughts on that are, but —

Washington: You know, I completely agree, and I even push it a little further to say, you know, ultimately diversity practices are good management practices, right? And while there requires nuance and understanding of complexities when it comes to some dynamics that we talk about in diversity, equity, and inclusion, ultimately the things that we’re trying to teach people around candid conversations, around tactical solutions, around measuring change for progress, around change management, those are good management practices.

And if we’re doing them for everyone, right? Like they say, a rising tide lifts all boats. We should be improving in our management practices. Whether we call it DEI or not, right? If we’re having meaningful conversations, if we’re trying to get to know people, if we’re trying to help them leverage their strengths, it’s going to benefit the whole organization. So I completely agree with you there.

Creary: Absolutely. I think the other thing that you said that struck me as being really important to reinforce was this notion of the pendulum swinging. And this is where a historical perspective becomes really important. And as I — I won’t say that I’m the eldest of the people who have been involved in this conversation, but it’s been two decades of engagement in some shape or another. And what I’ve come to understand is a lot of the organizations and people who got involved in this conversation in 2020, they don’t have that historical perspective. So this feels — it is painful but it feels really, really, really painful if this is your first rodeo, so to speak, when it comes to the pendulum swinging in a way that people don’t value this topic as much.

Washington: It’s exactly why I started my book, The Necessary Journey, with a chapter on the history and context of diversity, equity, and inclusion, and not just from a what has happened in history since the Civil Rights Movement and Affirmative Action laws, but also even in nomenclature. Like many people in 2020 were focused on, do we add equity, do we add justice? Like what are the words that we should be using? And so part of what I tried to do in the first chapter is break that down, like how do we get to DEI in the first place, what does it mean, and what should it mean for your organization.

So a lot of those foundational elements can’t be skipped over just because we’re ready to accelerate the conversation. I think if we do so too fast, as we saw in 2020, we miss some of those key things that are needed for us to move forward by understanding where we’ve already been on this journey.

Creary: Absolutely, absolutely. So I want to move into having a conversation around your latest book, which I’ve not read yet but I’m very excited to read it. And I acknowledged at the top of our conversation that you and I have known each other for a long time. We actually were PhD students in different institutions. And I think I was just like a couple of years ahead of you, one or two.

Washington: Yeah, yeah.

Creary: Maybe one year ahead of you.

How Can Minority Employees Be Authentic While Navigating a Corporate Workplace?

Washington: We were in The PhD Project at the same time.

Creary: The PhD Project, which is a nonprofit organization that’s focused on increasing the diversity of business school faculty. And so we’d go to all of our programs as junior people, try and figure out how we can navigate academia. So I can’t help but — from the short synopsis that I’ve read of your book, I can’t help but think of two things. One is like, man, these are the conversations that we used to have as part of our summer professional development workshops, was about how do we crack the hidden code of academia, and what it takes to be successful in this field.

So I see a little bit of — for me it’s nostalgic, and I wonder if it is for you. And second, I remember some of the early research that you were doing in your PhD program, which was very much focused on individuals. And their experiences navigating organizational environments. And so for me, what I’m projecting here is I wonder if part of the motivation for this book was coming back to the roots of — the psychological roots of where you started this process of understanding organizational life. But then you can just tell me whatever you feel is your real motivation. I just thought it was about you connecting back to these aspects of your past. But my question is, what motivated you to write this book, and who is this book for, who needs it?

Washington: So Stephanie, you nailed it as far as where this book got its genesis from. When I think back over my career, the positive and the negatives, there were always moments where people were helping me to understand how to navigate the environment, or there were moments that I clearly had a misstep and wish I would have known something, right? And so thinking back to my first corporate jobs, feeling like there’s always this if you know, you know type environment, and you had to be in an inner circle to like really understand how things worked.

Or even back to my PhD years and how organizations like the PhD Project not only gave us community where it was safe to ask those questions. They kind of put it in front of our face, like you know, there are things you don’t know how to navigate, let us help you explicitly, right? And so because of those experiences, and many others I’ve seen in understanding how women and people of color and other people of non-dominant identities experience the workplace, I wanted to provide a resource to encourage and give people some tactical things they could do to navigate these work spaces that may not have been built for them.

And so what I mean by that is like this is not about diminishing your identity or authenticity, it’s actually about understanding that better, and how it fits within the work environment, and helping you to navigate those work environments, or recognize if they’re not healthy work environments for you, and thinking about ways to make a career shift.

Creary: So I love that point that you’re making right here, is that there’s choice, right? Some of these — and there’s — some of these organizations are better for you perhaps than others. So the choice could be navigating this organization, or the choice could be going to a different organization that has the resources and support and the climate, the culture that allows you to be successful. And so I would love to get some examples from you, or like without giving the whole book away, right? Again, the book is called Unspoken: A Guide to Cracking the Hidden Corporate Code. Without giving away all the juice, what are some examples of tips or pointers that you share? Or stories?

Washington: Yeah, so each chapter is a different tactic that you should be putting in your toolkit, if you will. So some of my favorites are owning your story, because that’s all about being clear on your own identity and how you show up in the workplace. And thinking about how you want to show up in the workplace. I interviewed over 100 different people of all different walks of life for this book.

And so there’s so many stories that I can think about. But one that comes to mind around owning your story was from an Asian American young woman, and she was in the consulting space, and she vividly remembers kind of downplaying her Asian heritage early in her life. She talked about how she didn’t want to bring her traditional food to lunch when she was a child because she didn’t want it to smell differently than the other kids’ lunch.

She talked about how when she was an early career consultant she thought just putting her head down and working really hard was the way to go, and started to get confused when she got pushback when partners were saying they didn’t really know her even though she was coming to work and working super hard. And it wasn’t until she kind of interrogated how she was showing up in the workplace that she realized, oh my goodness, I am literally just like my mom.

In our culture, we have these expectations that you do put your head down, and you work really hard. And I didn’t realize I was bringing that into the workplace. And so how can I own who I am, and also let that be part of my identity at work as well in order for people to get to know me a little bit better, but also for me to navigate this space more authentically.

Creary: Yeah, absolutely. So you already started to answer my next question, but I’m a person who, as you know, does a lot of qualitative research, so it’s really the stories. I appreciate numbers, but the numbers to me only make sense as far as there is a human being attached to that. So I’m interested in like other stories of people that have stuck with you as you do this work. And so just as an example, you know, a lot of the stories that I tend to share these days when I’m out in corporate spaces talking about diversity, equity, and inclusion like you, is I actually share my students’ stories.

Because what’s fascinating is I’ve come to understand that sometimes leaders need the motivation that there is a younger generation who cares passionately about inclusive workplaces in order to continue sustaining the efforts, right? And the whole thing around the war for talent, and having — making sure that you’re able to be competitive with other companies that are trying to recruit from the same talent pools as you. So there’s this idea that, when we talk about younger people, sometimes that — at least anecdotally it has felt like it has gauged more interest. And so a story that I often share is about my students’ experiences of their internships or their first jobs.

So sometimes it’s they’ve taken my class, or they’ve just been — and particularly the undergraduate students. They’ve taken my class, or they’ve just been on a college campus for a while. And then they go and take a summer internship with some firm, and they’re sending me e-mails saying, “I feel like this is reinforcing the challenges that we talked about in class, and I just need to — can we hop on a phone for 30 minutes so you can help me figure out how to navigate this place?” So that’s just a starting ground for why I think sharing the stories is important. But are there other stories that you can think of, and particularly things for younger people or older people? Because I feel like people of all ages can have challenges navigating the workplace.

Washington: So what’s funny is that I knew I was on to something with this book topic when one of my seniors that I had last year, he graduated and is now working in the sports and entertainment industry. He reached out and said, “Dr. Washington, do you have just like 20 minutes? I just am in my first few months of work, and a lot of things that we talked about in our class, diversity, equity, and inclusion in the workplace, they’re coming up.” And I was like, “Okay great, let’s get on the call.”

So we get on the call and he’s like, “You know, I turned down this job in finance because I was really passionate about working in the sports and entertainment field, and while I’m happy to be here, I have no idea what’s going on. It’s not like when I was at the banks and they had an internship fully prepared, they had mentors already picked out. They kind of just left me to go with the wolves in this organization. And so I don’t know how to navigate it. I don’t know if my manager likes me, I don’t know if I’m doing a good job, etcetera, right?”

And so in hearing his questions and frustrations, it made me realize there are so many work environments that don’t have that buttoned up structure of how to onboard new employees, especially those who may not have had experience navigating the workplace, right? And what we’re seeing from a data perspective is that, particularly with Gen Z, a lot of organizations are feeling those COVID years, those lack of in-person internships, etcetera, as they’re seeing how this new generation is showing up.

And so I’m team Gen Z, because I teach them all the time. And I know that every generation, again, is dependent on — we all complain about the next generation, etcetera. But you know, what has been really curious for me is seeing how my students have noticed their work environments have shifted so dramatically than what they thought they were going into, like before the pandemic, and before, you know, such a hybrid work environment, etcetera.

So that’s one thing that comes to mind. Another story that comes to mind is one of my MBA students, Omar. And he was really fascinating in his experience, because he actually said no to being the head of the employee resource group for African Americans at his company, and he’s a Black man, right? And so this was really fascinating to me, because not only in my book do I talk about the power of strategic no’s making room for better yeses in your career, but it’s also knowing how to say no when something isn’t aligned with your goals, and what you can bring to the workplace.

So you know, Omar, he talked about how diversity and inclusion was already part of his day job for one of the functional roles that he had. And so he felt like it wasn’t adding much value to also put him in this ERG head role, and it didn’t align with his goals. He had already decided his goals were to get more exposure to the senior leadership team of the organization. So while he said no to that and made some suggestions to other people who may be good for that role, he shared with me that instead he pitched this podcast or a video blog cast idea to the senior team, because they were talking about the high attrition rates of some of the younger folks in the organization, low engagement, and reporting that they didn’t really feel like they knew the senior executive team. They didn’t know what they stood for, etcetera.

So fast forward, he creates this video blog idea where he’s interviewing everybody at the c-suite level. And it goes viral in their company. And so in that way he not only aligned with his own goals to get to know more of the c-suite, he also helped the organization in their goals to kind of close some of those generational communication gaps. And ultimately, I felt like it was a win-win, right? And so that is one really strong example from my book around how you create your own niche, thinking about your strengths, what your goals are, and what the organization needs. What problem can you solve by bringing your unique great self.

What Does It Mean to Be Authentic?

Creary: So the word that I used at the top of our conversation today was the A-word. The authenticity word.

Washington: Yes.

Creary: So this is a very interesting concept, and everybody has a different opinion on what it means, if you should be it or not. But I will tell you, it is — and it’s also when I’m teaching my DEI classes at Wharton, I struggle with what is the message that I’m trying to send when we’re talking about authenticity. And because on the one hand, you know, the people who care a lot these days around showing up authentically, whatever version of that they feel is aligned with what they are asking for, are people who are younger, and have less hierarchical power, and less tenure in an organization.

Washington: Yeah.

Creary: And so I hear them saying, you know, I want to be able to be the version of me that I value wherever I go, whenever I show up in a workplace. But then I will go and speak at a company, and what I hear is there are rules and there are policies, and they are here because we feel like these rules and policies allow us to not become distracted by people’s personal lives. I’m saying this, paraphrasing real things heard on the street, which as I’m sure you’ve heard.

And so I feel very much in the middle as a professor, trying to think about these two very different perspectives on authenticity. And so as you think about this, and this term, this concept, and how you use that in your book, and certainly in your teaching, where have you landed with respect to like where’s the sweet spot, if there is one?

Washington: So I’ve landed on the old Facebook term, it’s complicated, right? I think that organizations started to say, bring your whole self to work, be authentic, probably early 2000’s, 2010’s, right? That became all the rage. But I think what hasn’t shifted is what we actually mean by that. Because if you go back to the early 2000’s, 2010’s, social media did not exist or it was just becoming a thing, right? And so even how much of ourselves that was even out in the ether was different than what we have today, right?

And so workplaces may say bring your authentic self, but then they’re monitoring what you’re doing on social media, or they’re looking at, you know, what these different elements of your life are as they’re evaluating you for a job. So it’s definitely complicated. I think we all have work selves and personal selves, right? And I personally think that it’s important to understand the expectations for all employees at whatever organization that you’re working in.

So what does professionalism mean for better or for worse, what are the expectations, and where do I fit in with that? I think it comes back to choice. I don’t think organizations really mean be your full cranky, you know, mean self, etcetera. They mean be your professional selves, and they should be, you know, clear about what that means in that organization. And we, as employees, have to evaluate the organization based on their actions, and what they are actually allowing in their culture, right?

And so if an organization says that it values differences of opinion, and you share a divergent perspective and you’re always getting pushback on that, maybe there’s misalignment in what they’re saying and what’s happening. And there are many different ways to deal with that, but one is to evaluate long term is this organization the right place for you.

Creary: Yeah, absolutely. I think it’s interesting, so I’m a Gen X’er, which surprises a lot of people. I said, well, it’s a younger end of Gen X. I’m definitely not a millennial. Every time I see what’s characteristic of a millennial, I say, no, I’m actually more firmly in the Gen X camp. And so when I think about myself as a Gen X’er, I came into the workplace at a time when there were rules and there were policies and you don’t show up as anything other than what the ideal worker in that organization is. And so that’s how I was socialized until the conversation shifted towards this bring your whole self to work.

And that made me very anxious, because I didn’t trust it. And when I go into companies and I see the other Generation X managers and leaders, they’re in the same place. They don’t quite trust the narrative as aligned with who you can really be. And so I think one of the things that we’ve all had to contend with, and what I tell my students — I also have students who are not sharers. As many students that I have who really want it all to be seen all the time, I do have students who are concerned. Because there are a lot of people who I teach who have marginalized identities, and some of them are less visible than others.

And so one of the things that I’ve come to terms with is I’m comfortable sharing for the sake of authenticity, because I also know that people — some people’s sense of belonging, some people’s sense of community, is contingent on my willingness to share more of myself with them. There are a couple of topics that I’m happy talking about. One of them is I’m happy to talk about the fact that I grew up in Las Vegas. It’s a great conversation piece, right? And it seems — and I get the opportunity to break down people’s stereotypes around the city and the town and people who live there by talking about that’s where I grew up, you know?

I’m happy to talk about that fact that I was a professional dancer, modern dancer for a long time. Students and young people really connect to that because they’re like, “Whoa, I never met somebody who was a professor who had this whole other life.” And it allows us to feel connected, and it allows them to understand that, you know, these things are still my passion. I don’t dance anymore, but I appreciate arts and culture.

And then there’s certain aspects of my family that I’m happy to talk about. I recently got married last October. And I’m in my forties now. And so I like to tell people that, because I know especially lots of career oriented women struggle with how do I navigate all the things. But then there’s other things that I don’t want to talk about. And I have found that if I just share those three things, for someone like me who is a little bit concerned around what this authenticity thing means in the workplace, that has taken the threat down a lot for me.

And so I usually tell people, pick the three things that you want to talk about that you would feel that — that feel less threatening, that just would allow somebody to get to know you better. So that’s sort of how I — the tip that I have around this. I’m curious what are your tips, if you find someone who is like, eh, I don’t know if I want to share anything with everybody, knowing what you know about the evidence around how important that is for community, what do you often recommend?

Washington: Well, it’s funny because I feel comfortable sharing in this space because I am that person who, you know, grew up thinking there’s a separation of work and life, and you don’t cross pollinate. Your work self is your work self. You don’t have friends that you bring over to your personal life, and all those things. And as a Black woman especially, you know, I’ve always been very cautious to share too much, to illuminate any stereotypes, to let people know, you know, just how Black I am, and those feelings that a lot of people have, right, in the workplace?

And so I think to your point, right, the more senior you get in your career, the more that you may have the ability and an increased level of comfort in sharing certain things, right? But that’s not the case for everyone, but I have found that, you know, compared to 10, 15 years ago, there’s a lot more I feel comfortable with sharing. But that has been a journey. So one, I’d just like to highlight it doesn’t happen overnight for everybody, and that’s okay.

I completely agree with your approach, that find those things that you are comfortable sharing. In my book I talk about having a professional elevator pitch that just focuses on your role and your goals. But also having a personal elevator pitch. Who are you, you know? Where did you grow up? Or whatever those two or three things that you’re happy to share. Maybe you’re the daughter of veterans, and so you moved around a lot. Maybe you’re super proud that you went to a historically Black institution for college. Maybe you’re super proud of your hobbies, and you feel like they’re connected to some way that you’re showing up in the workplace, right?

I think that we have the opportunity to craft our narrative if we first start by owning said narratives. So that’s the first step, going back to that owning your story. But then once you have that comfort with your own story, you can choose how much of yourself you want to share in the workplace or not, right? Based on the psychological safety in the organization, your relationships with your team members. So again, that doesn’t happen overnight. But the longer that you have intentional relationships, the more you may feel comfortable sharing.

And I think that there’s a dual responsibility here. I think the organization must make the environment safe enough for people to bring as much of themselves as they want to, right? And so that’s a caveat. Like the organizational environment should be safe for you to bring your whole self, but there should not be an expectation that you have to just, you know, let it all hang out for better or for worse. It may not be appropriate or may not be helpful to the brand that you’re creating, right?

And so it’s on the individual to then lean in in whatever way they’re comfortable, find those things they’re comfortable sharing, understand that there is a positive element of getting — for people getting to know you and getting to know some of those more complicated elements of your identity, and of how you’re showing up at work. But it should never feel forced or that you’ll be judged if, you know, you want to hold some personal things more close to the vest.

Creary: Absolutely, absolutely. So you know, sadly our time is winding down. I knew it would go so fast once we got on. Again, reminder, the book is Unspoken: A Guide to Cracking the Hidden Corporate Code. Final thoughts you want to leave us about on this book, or perhaps the other?

Washington: Yeah, so Unspoken is all about having these conversations. You know, I am a huge proponent that the workplace should be a “if you know, you know” culture. And to help with that, we all have a responsibility to share those unspoken rules. Yes, we have written policies and practices, but there’s so many of those unspoken elements that I think would really benefit from more conversations with our peers, with our mentors, and with people that are coming behind us in our organizations.

Creary: Absolutely. All right, well thank you so much, Dr. Ella Washington, for joining me today. Please read her new book, Unspoken: A Guide to Cracking the Hidden Corporate Code. I look forward to reading it. It comes out in May. So I think definitely when this episode drops, people should preorder. Really important to preorder these books so that they get the visibility that they need on all sorts of platforms. I know it’s going to be a success. I am so excited to see all the great work that you’ve been doing. I’m very proud as a friend, and I would say as a fellow sojourner on this journey of DEI.

Washington: That’s right.

Creary: So I want to thank the audience for joining us, and listening to this episode of the Knowledge at Wharton Leading Diversity at Work podcast series. Goodbye, and we’ll talk to you next time.

Washington: Thanks for having me.