The Importance of Practical Diversity

After 33 years at UGA, Terry professor Dawn Bennett-Alexander is retiring. But her work to help companies understand the significance of inclusion and equity in the workplace goes on.

Ed Morales | Nov. 17, 2020

Dawn Bennett-Alexander
Dawn Bennett-Alexander has taught at the University of Georgia for 33 years, specializing in employment law, legal studies, and the importance of diversity and inclusion in the workplace.

The plan was to quilt, garden, hand-spin wool from fleece, and continue writing murder mysteries with her daughter. After 33 years at the University of Georgia, Dawn Bennett-Alexander devised a busy retirement of activities that had little to do with her chosen career path.

“Having worked ever since I left law school at 24, I can’t imagine what it would be like to be able to do those things without having the burden of what else I have to do in my head,” says Bennett-Alexander. “Bliss.”

But if your professional background includes expertise in employment law, legal studies, and the importance of diversity and inclusion in the workplace, the world doesn’t make it easy to step away.

Certainly not in 2020.

As the country addresses a racial reckoning stemming from the high-profile killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and others, Bennett-Alexander sought to help companies and organizations discover the significance of inclusion and equity they may have ignored or missed in the past. 

So in the days ahead when she’s not crafting, she will apply her experience as a lawyer, author, facilitator, and professor to Practical Diversity, her burgeoning new consulting firm and website “taking diversity from theory to practice.”

“One of the things I love about Practical Diversity is that it is totally organic,” she says. “I did not dream it up and try to make things fit into a concept I dreamed up. Instead, I went into this just giving Employment Law seminars to teach workplaces and students about Title VII, and, as it turned out, I was starting way ahead of where they were.”

She introduced Practical Diversity at a TEDxUGA talk that’s been viewed more than 130,000 times. It depends on “Heart Work,” and she says it begins with “people wanting to make change from the inside out, starting with their hearts in order to do what needs to be done to create change.” Bennett-Alexander employs videos, readings, and examples to make her point. But, as she notes in the TEDx video, this is not some “pie in the sky, let’s all hold hands and sing Kumbaya kind of a scheme,” but instead training in keeping companies from suffering self-inflicted wounds.

“I’m a lawyer, I teach law in the college of business, which means I’m all about the bottom line,” she says. “I want to help you save money by not having to spend $15 million for a really stupid mistake that was avoidable.”

As she did for thousands of students as a professor of legal studies, Bennett-Alexander sat down with us to share vital information businesses should understand to maintain diverse, inclusive, equitable, and belonging workplaces.

Q. What is the benefit of having diversity in the workplace?

A. First of all, the concept of Diversity, moved to Diversity and Inclusion. Then to Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion and the newest iteration is Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Belonging. Before answering the question, let me just say that if people truly understood the concept, they would realize how little sense that question makes, even though it is such a frequent one. The world is made up of all kinds of people. The vast majority of us need to work to support ourselves. To ask how DEIB benefits a workplace is essentially to ask why an employer should hire all sorts of people rather than only one group. If we are truly the meritocracy we say we are — where we each rise based on our merit and everyone in a group from which employees are chosen is qualified — why would we end up with virtually homogeneous workplaces? Why differentiate based on immutable characteristics like race, gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity, etc.?

Q: What can businesses do to make equity and inclusion a focal part and not a piece they consider on the side?

A. People want easy answers to a question that is tremendously complex and simultaneously, tremendously easy. Everything starts with the individual. Once we get that right, the rest comes naturally. I call the process of doing that “Heart Work.” It involves examining ourselves and our beliefs, based on the messages we have received from the moment we are born, figuring out how those shape the decisions we make about absolutely everything in our lives, and then how that manifests itself in the workplace. Without doing this work, we are only putting Band-Aids on the issue. Also, figuring out what any specific workplace needs to do is based on the specifics of that workplace. Everyone, every business, is not at the same place on the DEIB spectrum, so what they need to do to be truly inclusive will vary. However, no matter where they are on the spectrum, the best thing a business can do is to have an extremely committed and consistent top-down message of the importance of the issue and make sure it is put into action in every possible way, with consequences attached when it isn’t, otherwise, it is just words. People not only want their jobs because they need the money, but they are also social creatures. For the most part, we do what the group does. We certainly will if we want to keep our job. If the top person sets the tone and says this is what will happen, employees will either get with the program or find another job more compatible with their less inclusive values.

Q: What is the most challenging aspect of implementing DEIB in the workplace?

A: Getting people to remember to counteract the messages they received all their lives that form the basis of the decisions they make. The messages begin even before we are born, with people asking a pregnant mother the gender of the baby. What does the answer to that question tell us? Why is it something we need to know about a baby that isn’t even born yet? Even when it’s born, why do we need to know? Knowing obviously has value for us. We attach significance to knowing that fact. It allows us to place that baby in a certain place in our heads that dictates how that new person will be treated. Before the baby is even born, we want to know. Then when it is born, it is placed in a pink blanket or a blue blanket to convey the message of gender. After that, the messages of all kinds never stop. Being soothed when we cry sends a message that we are loved. Being fed when we are hungry sends a message. Receiving a smile when we do certain things is a message. Receiving a frown or a certain look sends us a message. They begin immediately and they cover everything, including, for our purposes, not only gender but also things like race, ethnicity, sexual orientation. Then, too, of course, there are the people who simply do not want to do it, either because they don’t believe it is necessary or that discrimination or difference in treatment exists, or because they simply don’t care. I do not engage in trying to convince someone of my daily reality when I live it each day. I stand in my truth. But I recognize that they have a right to their beliefs, and I recognize that they are not my audience. They are not the ones I am trying to help because they do not wish to be helped.

Q: What can businesses do to foster a feeling and culture of belonging?

A: The short answer is that, to figure this out, individuals have to think about what it is that makes them feel included and go from there. If you live in a world as one of the “in-group” you don’t even notice it. It’s like a fish in water. But for those in the “out” group, it is very obvious. If you go through the world feeling accepted, think about why. How do you know you belong? Specifically, what makes you feel that way? People smile at you, you receive positive feedback on your work, people’s body language reflects that they are interested in what it is you have to say, you believe your work is evaluated by the same criteria as everyone else’s, people seem engaged when they speak with you, you’re asked about your life, the furniture, recreation, food, music, all are consistent with what it is you expect. It isn’t that way for everyone.

The vast majority of people I have dealt with over the decades didn’t stop to think about how they may have been treating someone differently. They just assume they do. When their eyes are opened, they realize that is SO not the case. Diverse employees only want to be treated just as everyone else is. Nothing more. Nothing less. They aren’t asking for special treatment. They just want their workplace input and contributions sought, used, valued, and evaluated the same as anyone else.

Dawn Bennett-Alexander

Dawn Bennett-Alexander will apply her experience as a lawyer, author, facilitator, and professor to Practical Diversity, her burgeoning new consulting firm and website “taking diversity from theory to practice.”

Q: Innovation is an important piece of education at Terry College and UGA. What does DEIB bring to the realm of business innovation? What can colleges do to ensure teaching innovation is open to everyone?

A: The answer to the question lies within the question. Being innovative is seen as a positive. Why exempt DEIB from innovation? It is a workplace issue just like everything else that makes a business grow and prosper. How innovative would it be to use the total resources of your workforce and give them what they need to not only survive but to thrive in the workplace and bring their best gifts to the table in furtherance of the business’s goals? It’s all in how you think about it. If you think of DEIB as a burden, it will be perceived as one and your response will be in that vein. If instead, you see it as an incredible virtue, a positive, a resource, of value, your response will reflect that. American businesses love innovation. Your workforce is your single biggest and best resource for whatever business you are in. Being innovative about using that workforce to its greatest potential is a win-win.

Q: What do hiring managers need to consider when evaluating resumes to make their workplace an inclusive one?

A: They need to stop hiring themselves. Research has shown over and over again that is what hiring personnel do. We view the world through our own lens. That is how we view everything. There is nothing inherently wrong with snails or horse meat. But we immediately say “Ewwww!” because it is not what we are used to eating. In countries where it is, they view it quite differently. We evaluate people based on our values. The author Malcolm Gladwell tells the story of a U.S. Supreme Court judge who refused to hire anyone who had not graduated from Harvard Law School. Even though he acknowledged the best clerk he had ever known was from an Ohio law school that he borrowed from one of the other justices because of a heavy workload. Silly. He couldn’t think outside the box. You can’t do careful, intentional hiring by taking the shortcut of simply looking at everyone the same way and checking off boxes. I was on a podcast with a young Black female partner of a prestigious law firm recently, and she spoke of having to work her way through law school, so she couldn’t take advantage of the unpaid internships others could. But holding down three jobs taught her all about time management, prioritizing, maturity, decision-making, etc., plus the job skills themselves. If we’re only looking to check off that internship box, we miss the other things that could be there because we’re only looking at things one way. I did not go to Harvard Law School.

Q: What was the genesis of Practical Diversity — was there an a-ha moment, or was it a collection of moments throughout your career?

A: I didn’t start out to do consulting. I had worked as an attorney for years, with, of course, a year-round salary, but did not think about teaching being only nine months of the year until the summer was about to hit and I realized I have no money. Desperate, I asked my colleagues what they did for summer income. Someone suggested I go to Continuing Education and see if they could set up a program for me to do. I didn’t even know what Continuing Education was. I was used to being a lawyer, not an academic. Turns out, it is the university unit that offers seminars and courses to the public rather than to students enrolled in the institution. I found my way there, told them my problem, we came up with an Employment Law seminar I could offer and it became one of their very best offerings of all time. Always in demand, always full classes. If I ever had an a-ha moment, it would be that at the end of a three-hour session for employees one day, an employee tentatively raised her hand and said, “Isn’t what this really is about is respect?” Boom! YES! I was giving them all the legalities of it, but the bottom line was really that it was about simple respect for people who don’t look like you.

Q: Business often succeeds by thinking constantly about the bottom line, what can they do to embrace the “heart work” at the core of Practical Diversity?

A: Do it. Full stop.

Q: Of all the items clients come to you for advice about, is there one that you hear over and over again?

A: Yep. It’s “We want to do better. What can we do?” And I have to tell them that I can come and speak to them, but in the end, I am only providing tools to do the work and there is no way around doing the work. There are no quickie shortcuts because every employee is operating with their own set of issues about this subject matter and there is no way around figuring out what that is and how to make what you do consistent with what you think you are doing. You think you are treating everyone the same but you aren’t. You think you are being inclusive, but you aren’t. You think you understand it, but you don’t. You have to be willing to own that and move from there.

Dawn Bennett-Alexander

Dawn Bennett-Alexander's first year at University of Georgia was 1988.

Q: How has higher education changed since you first arrived at UGA 33 years ago?

A: Oh, my. How much space do you have?! It has changed drastically. UGA has gone from perennially being on the top party school list, to being the number one school in research-to-market research and innovation. It used to be perceived that it was an easy school to get into. Not anymore. When I first came, professor Jan Kemp had sued the University and won, challenging the light treatment of athletes in the classroom (I’m paraphrasing here, but that is the gist of it). It made it so that whatever easy understanding there had been about the revered place of athletes in a classroom was gone. No special treatment. Academics became an important part of the athletic program. Publishing standards for professors have become much stricter. Research grants have become much more important. All of it has become a much stiffer standard for granting promotion and tenure over the years. No easy shoo-ins anymore. We used to have remedial courses at UGA. They no longer do. Diversity and practical application have become much more a part of the curriculum. Programming for students has been more innovative, with broader appeal. All of this has meant that a degree from UGA means more in the greater world. That is good news for alumni.

Q: What was the best part of your job at UGA? What will you miss most?

A: The best part of my job is dealing with students and making them realize how incredible they are and how much they can accomplish. Whether it is in a classroom, in my office, at one of the many events I attend to support them, at one of the many events I participate in to encourage and inform them, or just seeing them on the way to my car or walking down the hall, I never miss the opportunity to make them know how much we value them and believe in what they can do in the world. It is what I will miss most, and, the truth is, what I know students will miss most.