Donald Thompson: Do your values reach your frontline teams? Here’s how

Editor’s note: Veteran entrepreneur and investor Donald Thompson writes about leadership, equality, diversity, innovation and entrepreneurship every week for WRAL TechWire. His columns are published on Wednesdays.

RALEIGH – A United Airlines spokesperson called it “an involuntary de-boarding situation,” but to others who witnessed the viral video of a Kentucky doctor of Chinese descent being forcibly removed from an overbooked aircraft in 2017, it felt like racial discrimination, or at best, a clear lack of empathy leading to the need for crisis intervention. International outrage ensued, and United repeatedly denied accusations that the man was selected for removal from the flight based even in part on his ethnicity. 

Yet a few weeks after the incident, United settled with the passenger, Dr. David Dao, for an “amicable” sum and quickly instituted 10 customer-service policy changes that were heavily focused on how they handle overbooked flights. Those policy edits were a great first step, but they seemed to be purely reactionary. At least from the outside, it didn’t seem like United ever took the bigger step of connecting the incident with their existing strategies for diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) to prevent future incidents proactively as well.

As background, let me point out that United has a long corporate history of commitment to DEI. In fact, as their website states, they’re “10+ years strong in earning a perfect score on Human Rights Campaign’s Corporate Equality Index (CEI), a national benchmark that surveys and reports on corporate policies and practices related to LGBTQ+ workplace equality.” They even earned that perfect score in 2017, since this incident was not related to LGBTQ+ employees but, instead, related to ethnicity and a customer.  

As a certified diversity executive and a mentor to other C-suite leaders, this is a challenge I see far too often. Organizations invest in DEI and do the work internally to educate their executives and managers about the business case for DEI, inclusive leadership, and unconscious bias, but frontline teams are given little to no training. In the case of United Airlines and Dr. Dao, much, much more could have been done — before, during, and after that day — to bring inclusion into practice by teaching frontline professionals how to extend DEI best practices beyond their internal teams to respectfully interact with customers as well. Inclusion doesn’t stop with your colleagues after all.  

DEI learning is too often relegated only to the boardroom or to administrative employees. Here’s why a skill-based education is critical for your frontline workers too.

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Inclusion must extend to your clients and customers 

As the global pandemic has made clear, it’s our frontline professionals who are most often engaging with customers, partners and stakeholders as part of their daily responsibilities. These are our nurses, administrative assistants, cashiers, retail clerks, flight attendants, security guards, and delivery drivers, and they are interacting with millions of people from all walks of life as they perform their roles. In short, the number of people who will interact with your brand through the leadership tier of your organization is far smaller than the number of folks who will interact with your frontline employees. 

Your frontline professionals have a direct impact on your brand perception, customer satisfaction and employee retention, especially if they aren’t acting inclusively. Yet these professionals often don’t receive sufficient skill-based training to respectfully interact and communicate with diverse customers and clients. Lack of preparation and charged social environments, coupled with high employee turnover, have already proven to be costly. As leaders, we have to do more to equip our frontline employees for success in their jobs. 

Teach critical skills for navigating complex cultural conversations and situations 

If you are a frontline professional reading this column, you’re probably already well-versed in the facts I’m sharing. You know your role requires you to learn and think on the fly, adapting to diverse, multicultural, multigenerational and multilingual customers. Yet your employee handbook might be the only information you receive to navigate these complex cultural moments. Does your employee handbook feel like it’s enough? Do you feel prepared for uncomfortable moments with diverse customers and other coworkers on your team?

Tangible training around disability etiquette, cultural competency, unconscious bias, inclusion and accessibility will create more positive outcomes and a more inclusive work environment where everyone feels welcome and respected. A skill-based education is not only “the right thing to do.” It’s a strategic imperative for future-focused organizations that want to attract great frontline professionals and keep them on board. Why? Because the “perception gap” between what C-suite executives think their teams experience and what it actually feels like on the front line is already costing our economy upwards of $1 trillion.

How can executives make sure their DEI efforts are trickling down to make an impact within frontline teams? 

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1. Ensure adequate distribution of resources to frontline professionals

For sustainable success, it’s imperative that your DEI values and initiatives permeate every arm of your organization. That means ensuring appropriate financial, temporal and human resources for educating your frontline teams. Yes, your DEI strategy should begin with C-suite commitment and mandatory education for all executives, but you should also commit to a firm timeline to roll out training for all frontline workers. Otherwise, organizations too often put their frontline training on the back burner. 

2. Incentivize voluntary, organization-wide training

No, not one-time presentations or checkbox-style compliance requirements. These education opportunities should be a continuous part of career development pathways across the entire employee life cycle in your organization. Make these training sessions and tools accessible to frontline professionals wherever they are, and offer incentives for continued investment in DEI learning to ensure success with long-term impact. Mobile microlearning, competition-style challenges, and rewards for demonstrating inclusive actions will make learning fun and, therefore, sustainable. 

3. Empower frontline leaders to move leadership mandates through the org chart

Your middle managers are your on-the-ground culture drivers and have the capacity to make or break your DEI initiatives. In fact, these leaders often make the difference between widespread inclusion and a stagnant, lifeless DEI commitment. They are also key to employee retention. A 2018 BCG Global Diversity Survey notes that employees whose direct managers aren’t committed to DEI are three times more likely to seek employment somewhere else.

The topic is timely and will continue to be for the foreseeable future. After all, it’s not just frontline healthcare workers who are suffering from unprecedented levels of stress and anxiety as they seek to save lives. Most frontline workers—including teachers; retail workers; service and hospitality workers; water and sanitation staff; and countless others throughout the supply chain—are not being appropriately supported and valued in their roles. 

In sum, supporting your frontline professionals so they can do their best work consistently means helping them learn the skills they need to navigate complex cultural interactions and interact respectfully with diverse customers from all demographic groups and backgrounds. It means giving our frontline professionals the resources they need to feel confident in their workplace and in their responsibilities. When we support our frontline professionals by giving them opportunities to learn the skills they’ll need to forge ahead as teammates and brand ambassadors, we lay the foundation for a more sustainable organization.

Donald Thompson: Want your employees, clients, investors to trust you? Lead with facts, act with empathy 

About the Author

Donald Thompson is an entrepreneur, public speaker, author, podcaster, Certified Diversity Executive (CDE), and executive coach. With two decades of experience growing and leading firms, he is a thought leader on goal achievement, influencing company culture, and driving exponential growth. He is also co-founder and CEO of The Diversity Movement, a results-oriented, data-driven strategic partner for organization-wide diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) initiatives. Donald serves as a board member for several organizations in marketing, healthcare, banking, technology, and sports. Connect with him on LinkedIn and at Join his team for a panel discussion about DEI for frontline professionals on November 18th at 12:00 noon ET.

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Kassie Hoffman
Kassie pens down all the news from the world of politics on ANH.