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Build Safety Culture by Embracing Diversity, Equity and Inclusion

If team members can’t be their authentic selves on the job, then the workplace isn’t as safe as it could be.

One day, a young African-American girl was watching a character parade at a major theme park with her father. “Oh, there’s one!” the girl exclaimed.

It was at that moment that her father, Jim Peal, an expert in architecting and managing organizational change, realized his daughter had spent the entire parade looking for an African-American woman dressed as a popular character.

Picture a parade of business aviation professionals, maybe even those from your own organization. What does the parade look like? If all of the characteristics that make you “you” were visible, would you see someone of your faith, ethnic background, sexual orientation or other defining characteristics?

Diversity Matters

Diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) is not just “the right thing to do.” DE&I is critical to an organization’s success.

Peal says a truly diverse work team reflects society in general. Inclusion means making sure all members of that team feel welcome and a part of the organization, while equity means all team members receive equal compensation for equal work and have equal opportunities for advancement.

Studies show that diverse teams are better than homogenous ones, generally making better decisions that often result in increased productivity. Equity and inclusion are important for ensuring a diverse team’s achievement.

Kali Hague, a partner at Jetlaw, said that the history of a homogenous aviation workforce is understandable but not acceptable. “In aviation, we rely on checklists and process and tend to think more of the same is better,” she explained.

Diversity’s Impact on Safety Culture

What does DEI have to do with safety culture?

A diverse approach to safety is a better approach because different viewpoints and experiences provide alternative perspectives and ideas. However, diversity is only part of the equation. It’s impossible to have a strong, positive safety culture without true equity and inclusion, which are foundations of a just culture.

The Safety Management International Collaboration Group – which includes FAA, EASA and other regulators dedicated to promoting a common understanding of safety management principles and requirements – defines “safety culture” as “the set of enduring values, behaviors and attitudes regarding safety, shared by every member at every level of an organization.”

The six attributes that make up a safety culture are:

  • Commitment
  • Justness/Just Culture
  • Adaptability
  • Information
  • Awareness
  • Behavior

Wyvern CEO Sonnie Bates, CAM, says commitment is the most important of these attributes, as it ties the other five together.

“Commitment provides that real desire to take the next step in the right direction,” said Bates. “With that commitment to take the next step, you ensure that you have a fair and just culture, so you have the information you need to adapt and evolve.”

Bates says safety culture is really a team event and asks if you can have a good team if you don’t have a just or fair one? If the team is unwilling to let a colleague be his or her authentic self, then the team has collectively introduced a distraction that decreases the amount of energy each team member can spend on safety. Experts say this so-called “psychological safety” to be yourself and share your views is critical to a positive safety culture.

Common Challenge: Bias

One common challenge to developing a diverse, equitable and inclusive workforce is unintentional bias.

“Bias is that invisible barrier that we have toward other groups,” said Risha Grant, award-winning diversity and inclusion consultant and author, adding it’s an often unrecognizable trait we learn from our families. “Some of those teachings cause us to have a mistrust [of others].”

Because a person may be unfamiliar with a group of people, that group can seem threatening. Personal experience, family, media and institutions are all sources of bias.

While overt racism and discrimination are often easy to identify, unintentional bias is more challenging for individuals and society as a whole to detect and address.

Grant suggests considering who makes you uncomfortable and ask yourself why. This is a simple way to determine your own biases.

“If the middle seat is open on an airplane, who do you not want sitting next to you?” Grant asked. Would you celebrate privately if a heavily tattooed person, someone wearing attire representing a certain religion, or a person of a different race moved along to another row?

Experts say that once you identify your own bias, you have to confront it. In many cases, this means identifying and avoiding microaggressions. Microaggressions are casual statements in the form of backhanded compliments, “innocent” jokes that are actually offensive, and other insensitive comments. For example, a male pilot saying of a female pilot, “She’s a pretty good pilot…for a girl,” is an example of a backhanded compliment that is a microaggression.

Perpetrators of microaggressions are often unaware of the offensive nature of their statements. Even the most well-intentioned person can accidentally commit a microaggression, so it is important that human resource specialists and managers actively engage with employees to discuss microaggressions, how to avoid them and how to productively call them out.

Grant and Peal both note that a person who is a target of a microaggression needs a substantial amount of emotional energy to call out the offense. Therefore, these experts suggest that targeted individuals should first take stock of their emotional energy before engaging.

Positive Steps for Leaders

It is clear that microaggressions and other non-inclusive actions have a direct impact on an organization, so addressing biases and microaggressions is critical for ensuring a positive safety culture.

“In order to create a safe environment, you need to have your attention [focused] on the environment,” said Peal. “Any time one of these [microaggression] events happens, all of a sudden your attention is turned inward.”

Leaders must create an environment in which diversity is celebrated and biases are not tolerated. The first step is to become comfortable discussing these issues. Sometimes that means being vulnerable or admitting you don’t know enough about DEI but want to be part of the conversation.

One way to begin a discussion about DEI is to have “diversity introductions.” Encourage team members to talk to each other about how they’re different. Peal says that even if a team all looks the same, each team member really is different. On the other hand, even if a team appears to be very diverse, there are always similarities.

Showing this kind of initiative is one way to distinguish a leader from a manager. A leader will take the time to get to know his or her team and help that team get to know each other.

To evaluate and improve safety culture, Bates recommends that leaders conduct interviews and surveys to gauge the organization’s safety culture, then observe behavior to see if subsequent actions reflect the perspectives shared in the interviews and surveys.

Finally, the group’s structure must support a positive safety culture, meaning that the organization needs to have the resources, policies and procedures to support those efforts.

Since microaggressions are often the result of unintentional and unidentified biases, providing educational opportunities for team members to learn more about these challenges can make a big difference for an organization.

Where Will You Be Tomorrow?

A diverse team can be a better team, and an equitable and inclusive environment can enhance safety. But how do you get there?

Picture again the parade of business aviation industry professionals. Think of your own organization’s parade. What do you want that parade to look like in 10 or 20 years, so that the business aviation industry looks more like society in general and is safe, sustainable and successful for years to come?

Review NBAA’s DE&I resources.

How to Create a Diverse, Equitable and Inclusive Environment

  • Develop, publish and live zero-tolerance policies related to racism and discrimination.
  • Establish anti-retaliation policies and procedures for anyone who reports inappropriate behavior.
  • Provide training to raise awareness of company DE&I policies and identifies behavior that violates those policies.
  • Remember that microaggressions are often the result of unintentional – and unidentified – biases and address them.
  • Make sure that top leadership embraces and champions DE&I policies.
  • Create an environment in which open communication is encouraged and truly valued.
  • Consider job candidates with diverse backgrounds when vacancies or organizational growth occurs.

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