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My DE&I journey towards enlightenment

Merkle, for me, has always been an amazing place to work. From the day I joined, I’ve felt constantly wind in my sails from my colleagues, the leaders of the business and the amazing clients I continue having the pleasure of working with. I could write a whole blog purely focused on how many times people in the business have believed in me, way before I believed in myself but as they say, that’s a story for another day.

I’d like to focus on a new era, at least new to me, that I’ve recently been more involved in - Diversity, Equity & Inclusion (DEI).

Cards on the table. My connection and understanding of DEI from a work perspective was near zero. For sure we’ve always done a lot of mandatory training that we used to nickname ‘common sense’ training. Even that traditional training has been completely revamped. A point I’ll expand on later.  The murder of George Perry Floyd Jr dropped a lit match on a world already drenched in fuel. I mean literally, cities were set alight. Now, most people are more aware of acronyms like DEI, BAME, LGBTQ+ and many more. It’s a whole subject matter.

Initially, because of my lack of understanding and emotional connection to DEI, I was reluctant to actively engage. This might sound strange coming from the only black guy in our Bristol location. Being the only black guy prior to 2020 was never a notable observation for me. I was just part of the team. Race was never a factor at all. I’ve not had one racially motivated experience in the 11 years I’ve been working at Merkle.

In recent times, I’ve felt strangely hesitant of sharing my experience. Would my words be distracting and make people think it’s all good, there are no challenges here? Would other ethnic minority folks who work in Bristol and other locations across the network, especially my black colleagues, feel I’m speaking on their behalf? I cannot stress it enough; I’m talking about my personal lived experience. I’m not speaking on behalf of anyone else.

Because of my lack of understanding and emotional connection… on 18/06/2020 at 17:48 I joined my first DEI pillar at Merkle, the Ethnicity Pillar. I later joined another DEI pillar, Parent & Carers. I wanted to learn and what a ride it’s been. I’m no DEI expert but one thing I can tell you is I’m richer for the experience.

I recall having a chat with my dad about my first few months in the Ethnicity Pillar. My dad had a bit of a chuckle and said, “I see you are following in my footsteps”. I had forgotten about this but one of my dad’s early professions when he lived in Manchester was working as an Executive Officer for the Commission of Racial Equality in the early 80’s. That’s over 40 years ago now. A lot has changed, and it would appear a lot has stayed the same.

DEI at Merkle is extensive and consists of 7 pillars.

  • Gender
  • Ethnicity & Race
  • LGBTQ+
  • Religion
  • Disability
  • Mental Health
  • Parent & Carer

You don’t need to be part of a pillar to get exposed to DEI efforts of course but you do get to see behind the curtains if you do. I couldn’t do justice to the efforts DEI volunteers deliver at Merkle, but I would like to share some experiences that float up in mind in a mix of many positive experiences.

 

LGBTQ+

lgbtq

Let’s start with the acronym. People often use LGBTQ+ to mean all of the communities included in the “LGBTTTQQIA”

  • Lesbian
  • Gay
  • Bisexual
  • Transgender
  • Transsexual
  • 2/Two-Spirit
  • Queer
  • Questioning
  • Intersex
  • Asexual

Two Spirit is a Native American term used to describe people with both male and female spirits. The term Two Spirit has been around since the 90’s and it’s only recently gained traction in general understanding. You might have seen Two-Spirit being represented in LGBTQ2+. Just another example of something I’ve learnt because of DEI activities at Merkle. I do wonder how many people reading this are coming across Two-Spirit for the first time here.

I joined an internal webinar titled LGBTQ+ History Month: &Proud + Represent. Four panellists talked about their experiences of being a queer individual from a Black, Asian, or other minority ethnic background. One of the panellists was my colleague from our Bristol location. She described how being a Lesbian at work wasn’t a point of focus at all. Her partner would join us for after work drinks and it’s always been business as usual. This is the way it should be. However, she also shared her experience from a social perspective, family, and society. There was a stark difference. I won’t go into detail here. I left the call really thinking about how I would and should support my own children should either of them say one day, “Daddy, I’m gay”.

I was born in Manchester and my family moved to back to Zimbabwe when I was 2 years old. Zimbabwe is a beautiful country, teeming with warm and wonderful people. A place of exquisite natural beauty. Home to one of the 7 natural wonders of the world, the Victoria Falls. It’s also a country that still has sodomy laws which directly infringe on the freedom of the LGBTQ+ community. Ironically, the first president of Zimbabwe, Canaan Banana was imprisoned for 6 months for being gay based on the same laws that are still upheld today. I was raised by progressive parents thus the propaganda never influenced me. However, one day, I may need to take “progressive parenting” to the next level.

Listening to my colleagues tell their stories took me back to the first time I watched the music video 1-800 by Logic. If you’ve not seen it before, here’s a link:

Watch the video

It’s a tough watch.

 

Inspiring Inclusion Training

We’ve always had training related to respectful, professional, and basic human conduct within the workplace. I’d imagine it’s the same type of content you’ll find in most respectable companies of this size. Typical video-based role play acting from an external provider who churns out this sort of content for hundreds of other businesses.

When a colleague reached out and asked if I had completed my mandatory Inspiring Inclusion training as she wanted to discuss it with me, my first thought was, isn’t it the same as last year? What’s there to discuss? We’re going to have Reuben the villain doing his thing and the HR guy Jeff coaching Reuben on why his conduct is not in line with the company policy. My colleague urged me not to leave it to the deadline and do it the next day so we could chat about it. I rolled my eyes but logged in to get cracking.

Within the first 5 minutes I realised that this time it was different. Putting aside the very engaging structure of the training, the usual actors were nowhere to be seen. Instead, we had actual Merkle employees from all over the world contributing their lived stories at work and in their personal lives. Each contributor’s input lined into three themes.

  • Inclusive behaviours
  • Valuing difference
  • The power of inclusion

What really stood out for me was how deep and expressive their stories were. Many contributors spoke in their mother tongues. When my wife and I have been put through the wringer by the kids, we sometimes break out into our individual mother tongues of Kiswahili and Shona. I’d never considered using your first language to bolster expression, in a company where the business language is English. Their body language also seemed amplified, and my eyes kept drifting away from the subtitles but still maintaining a sense of understanding as I watched and listened to each story.

It wasn’t only the amazing stories that stood out. The training was packed with loads of actionable cues and nudges that you could take away and implement immediately. Something as simple as putting your pronouns in your email signature which takes 1 minute to do. Hearing what that simple act means to someone else who fights for people to recognise and respect their identity just causes you to act immediately.

This year, an awesome colleague put themselves forward to join our Business Intelligence team, and they use the pronouns They / Them. The number of times I’ve fumbled over their pronouns is embarrassing. On every occasion they’ve spent energy on making me feel comfortable that I’ve made a mistake and gently encouraged me to keep trying. Although I knew why getting this right was important, it took me a while to get into the flow. I’ve now found comfort in prompting other colleagues when they use the wrong pronouns. I also say, don’t worry, I used to get it wrong and on rare occasions still do. Just keep trying. You’ll get there.

My words here again won’t do the Merkle Inspiring Inclusion training justice. You have to see it to believe it. My colleague and I did catch up. She told me it was the first time that mandatory company policy training became a huge catalyst and centre point of dialogue within her family. DEI activity is shaping people beyond Merkle employees.

Next stop…

 

Parent & Carer Pillar

parents

I must be honest. This one I got hunted down for and gently encouraged to join. It soon came to light that I was the only father representative in the committee. Something I missed in the small print. We have a Merkle Fathers channel which also tends to be dormant. Clearly there is something about fathers actively contributing to Parent and Carer initiatives within our business that’s lacking I thought. An early mission was of course to get more male representation into the Pillar. It turns out all you need to do is ask… directly. We now have three more male representatives in the committee already contributing a different perspective from both the Parent and Carer point of view.

Prior to joining the Parent & Carer Committee I was already a recipient of some of the championing that a handful of volunteers had been driving. Lockdown has been challenging for a lot of people in different ways.

In our family, we have two children aged 5 and 9. Like most parents across the UK and beyond, home schooling was a new phenomenon or rather a meme. Parents were looking up legislation on expelling children from home school.

The Parent & Carer Committee was the primary driver behind introducing paid dependency days to help manage the new norm for those that had caring requirements for loved ones. Flexible working enabling employees to contract and expand the working day to blend with demands at home. Booking out time in their work calendar for homeschooling during working hours. In addition to dependency days and flexible working, parental leave was also available.

Prior to joining the Parent and Carer Committee, I’d always assumed decisions were coming from the mother ship. Although the leadership team has set the foundation, a lot of the nuances of what different people within the business need is driven by committee volunteers who collaborate with colleagues and shape the support the business signs off on.

 

Ethnicity Pillar

ethnicity

I found myself on a call with ethnically diverse folks from across the Dentsu network, the majority of whom I’d never met before. It was the first time ever I’d been on a Teams Meet where 100% of the attendees were non-white, including the hosts. This session had been organised by the Merkle leadership team and the facilitators were from an external company called the Diversity Practice, an international award-winning diversity-led management consultancy.

The objective of the meeting was centered around these two questions

  • To what extent does Merkle have an open inclusive environment for Black, Asian and ethnically diverse employees where everyone belongs and can fulfil their potential?
  • What has your experience been working at Merkle as a Black, Asian and ethnically diverse employee?

 

When the session started, it was slow, so I jumped in with my default “Everything Is Awesome… from my perspective” like Emmet from The Lego Movie. As things warmed up it became clear that my experience was certainly not consistent across the network and indeed there’s work that needs to be done. I’m putting it lightly. There is a lot of work that needs to be done.

I remember telling myself, talk less and listen more. I felt like a privileged man especially in relation to the female experiences that were shared. One of the many points that were raised was the disappointing realisation of the extent of the Ethnicity Pay Gap. The pigment of your skin having a negative correlation to your remuneration is of course demoralising. Couple that with the Gender Pay Gap and yeah, it stings. As part of the Ethnicity Pillar’s agenda, understanding where we are today for a better tomorrow is one of the primary objectives. While the Ethnicity Pay Gap has been surfaced internally, Merkle has decided to go a step further. For the first time, Merkle is choosing to publish our ethnicity pay gap report externally on our website alongside the gender pay gap. Unlike the gender pay gap which is a legal requirement, for whatever reason the ethnicity pay gap isn’t.

While this report has been emotive internally, I respect the transparency the business is striving for. If you can’t measure it, you can’t improve it.

Hello world. No one is making us do this but here’s our ethnicity pay gap.

A cultural aspect people now quickly notice in Merkle is we have challenging conversations and content out there in open forums. Stuff that would make you grit your teeth is brought to the surface in constructive, uncomfortable, engaging, sobering, colourful and heart-breaking dialogue. The very first time I watched 12 Years a Slave was with Merkle colleagues on a Netflix Watch Party with a live chat dialogue going. It was part of a series of events for Black History Month last year. It’s deep just how radical and serious Merkle is taking DEI.

 

In conclusion

I think at this point you get the picture. This is just a sample of the activities I’ve had the pleasure of being actively involved in and benefitted from the time and investment of others across DEI pillars. The bulk of this stuff is internal albeit we do run external engagements as well. 

It’s the culmination of literally hundreds of DEI touchpoints in the form of, events, internal blogs, planning meetings, training content, webinars, guest speakers and so much more that come together to make Merkle not just a place of employment, but a place of enlightenment as well.

I am well and truly richer for the experience and welcomed the opportunity to share this internal experience with an external audience.

Peace out!

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