Going From Best Intentions to Best Practices for DEI

Janine Yancey, Founder and CEO at Emtrain
Feb 18, 2021

When it comes to diversity, equity and inclusion, how do you move from best intentions to best practices? In this PIVOT episode, Janine Yancey, founder of Emtrain, shares how small businesses can take action to help build healthier workplace cultures.

“I operate from the assumption that in our hearts, we’re all good people, trying to do what’s right in the world,” says Janine Yancy.  But she also recognized that without practice in taking on uncomfortable and hard conversations and experiences, that isn’t enough to make meaningful change happen.

As an employment attorney and advisor, Janine Yancey repeatedly noticed the same issues in the workplace, and she wasn’t satisfied with merely treating the symptoms. Instead of sitting on the sidelines, she took action founding her own company, Emtrain, where she helps businesses and their teams reduce bias, harassment and ethics problems in the workplace. 

Janine joins the People Ops Podcast to discuss what levers —and experiences—businesses can use to move their organizations and behaviors forward.

On this episode, you’ll hear:

  • [02:58-07:39] How—and why—to challenge conventional ways of thinking on diversity and inclusion
  • [11:55-16:12] Moving the needle from best intentions to best practices: immersive exercises
  • [17:29-20:32] What are the best ways to get started?
  • [20:33-23:30] Takeaways and insights for small businesses with Zenefits CPO, Tracy Cote

POPS Star Bio

A former employment attorney, Janine Yancey founded Emtrain to help businesses prevent or resolve workplace issues, improve productivity, and drive employee engagement. She’d witnessed too many—avoidable—mistakes and was passionate about helping build healthier workplace cultures. Janine will tell you her own experience launching a small business came from a combination of deep sector expertise, great passion to make a difference and naivete about what would be required. But, it helps that she married into her own village of entrepreneurs for advice and a healthy dose of empathy.

After you listen: 

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Janine: I think that what I have seen over the years that is most impactful and moving the needle in diversity and inclusion is humanizing.

Didi: POPS! It’s the People Ops Podcast from Zenefits, the only show dedicated to small businesses, sharing stories of pivotal people, moments. I’m your host Didi D’Errico.

like on many small business owners’ minds is diversity and inclusion. And for many how to move from best intentions to best practices to help us figure it out is Janine Yancey.

As a former employment lawyer turned CEO of Emtrain, Janine’s expertise is in bias, harassment, and ethical problems in the workplace. For her, the journey started with one glaring realization. 

Janine: I was a San Francisco employment, lawyer advisor litigator. And I think I just grew frustrated. I did that for a number of years.

And while I loved being a lawyer, you can’t help, but see the same problems over and over and over and over again. And at a certain point, I felt like, wow. Or just treating the symptoms. No, one’s really getting to the root of the disease.

Didi: Starting a business is hard. It takes dedication, commitment, and perseverance. And it’s not for the faint of heart. Here’s, Janine’s take on running a small business and I wonder, will it resonate with you?

Janine:  I think I was just frankly, a little naive. I just saw a problem that needed to be addressed. I’m a smart person. I can figure this out. I just took a leap, a leap of faith, frankly, what I find most rewarding about small business is you really do feel like he’s got.

An extended family. I mean, I’ve seen, you know, colleagues get married, have kids and other kids are for me at some point along this journey, like that became a reward for me in and of itself really is like, wow, I am supporting or helping support, like all these families. And that’s pretty cool. 

Didi: Janine took a leap, setting out to help build awareness and practices to mitigate and improve fairness in the workplace. It’s one thing to talk about the change that’s needed and it’s another to help actively address it. And she does this through an immersive approach, enabling organizations to get comfortable with the uncomfortable. How does her expertise transform the conventional way of thinking? Let’s start there with Janine.

Janine: So I think when we think about traditional HR practices and where they may have missed the mark, I think that. When we just share, some policies and some rules and approach it as if this is universal language that everyone’s going to understand and react the same way, too. That really actually does everyone a disservice, because just like if folks listening are parents just like you spend years teaching your children.

Manners and how to behave and what’s appropriate. What’s not, those are skills, you’re actually teaching skills, right? And when you, we think about being our best selves in the workplace, there’s a whole set of workplace skills that frankly. We’ve never approached as these are workplace skills. We’ve approached it as well.

Everyone who’s a decent person just obviously knows this. Well, that’s actually not true. So it’s, it’s, it’s actually changing how we think about these things as these are competencies and they take practice and then just combine that with. We’re that. So that’s always been true. It’s even more amplified right now when we are in a time of quickly changing social norms.

So like for example, one of our newest micro lessons is teaching people how to address. People that are not, you know, binary gender, you know, that are trans or, or, or, you know, gender fluidity and there, and there is a practice that needs to go with that of like how to be respectful and supportive because that’s beyond a lot of people’s, uh, experience. And so it’s a new behavior that we’re teaching. 

Didi: Are there companies that by nature of the business that they do, maybe the first or best at building diversity inclusion practices, or is it really the leadership? 

Janine: Yeah, so I actually mistakenly believed a while ago that the organizations that are doing really novel cutting-edge solutions would be the ones where we would see the best practices. And I found in our work here at Emtrain that that’s not necessarily true. That was just an accurate assumption on my part. I think what I have seen demonstrated is it takes one or more leaders. You know, in the senior ranks so that they actually have influence that really cares about this topic and they make it one of their issues to lean on in the workforce.

I mean, that’s where you start to really see organizations that are investing just mental Headspace, thinking about these issues, investing the time. To think of a holistic strategy and tactics that cascade down through the different layers of an organization to actually try to bring about a different kind of result. It starts at the top and who at the top cares. 

Didi: I’ve been working in the HR space for a long time. And a lot of people, even like things like company values. We’ve all lived through companies like this who pin five things to the wall in conference rooms. And it was like, we believe in this and we put it on our website and then everybody forgets about it.

And it doesn’t, it isn’t baked into the culture of the company. It’s a best intention. Right. But it doesn’t have the strategy or the follow-through to make it real. Then you see the companies who are very purposeful about what do they stand for and how it. How it impacts the way that they deal with their customers, how they work with each other, how they, how they grow their business, how they make decisions about where they’re going to invest in, where they’re not.

And it’s consistent practice. It’s not a best intention. And I’m curious if you’ve seen, started to see a shift in 2020 from companies thinking about D and I more as a, I want to check that box and have a best intention to get much more serious about it. 

Janine: We definitely have seen a difference. And I think that for the former category, that the people that just watch it, the box that actually is riskier now because your, your workforce will call you out. If you’re not going to dig in best to be silent on it, like, it’s, it’s a worst to do a performative check the box effort. Right. So, so there’s that in terms of people who are digging in, we’ve seen. And it says, you know, kind of interesting. So, you know, I’m training with that. We’re a small business. We partner with mid and large businesses, some small too, but, and I mentioned that only because that’s the larger businesses, they’ll have different business leaders that are available to take ownership.

It’s more than just a first. Pass at it. It’s like, you need to build a whole strategy, a whole business strategy to operationalize it through your, your entire workforce. And sometimes I think organizations feel more confidence that take a functional business leader and partner that person with a diversity leader to make sure that happens.

Didi: And that is I think, where it starts to get. Harder, perhaps for a small business, who is that person who already has seven other hats? Right. And how do you find them in, is it by function or is it by inclination in personal passion or is there kind of a combination of the two that you would think about when you think about small businesses wanting to take this on and do it correctly?

Janine: So I think it’s a combination. And I think that, you know, first off I want to just put out there that I don’t want to be unrealistic, small businesses, you know, we’re all wearing multiple hats and there’s only so much you can do. And it’s not, it’s not helpful to have this best practices template. That’s just not even in the realm of possibilities.

So just let it, let it go. And don’t, don’t sweat it just instead think about, okay, do you have the bandwidth this year to make an investment, not necessarily money, but of time and mental energy. And if your answer is yes to that, then look for somebody who’s got the inclination and probably partner them with a business leader.

And if you’re the only business leader that it has to be, ideally there’s somebody else. But, but, but actually as like a founder, CEO, That person should be weighing in and, and really carrying the message. And it’s a matter of tailoring a plan that makes sense for the business, given its size and business needs this year.

Didi: It’s a good segue. So we, we kind of. Plowed into this topic as, wow. It’s incredibly topical. It’s as important as a, it’s just a human thing to do the right thing. But what are the business upsides to? If we can talk about why diversity inclusion is no longer, a nice to have for companies of any size, maybe perspective on that.

Janine: Yeah. So, I mean, I’ll reference, you know, I’m married into a family of small business owners, right? They all have their small businesses. And I, and as I’m talking, I’m thinking about my brother-in-law who owns a home remodeling business, and I think he’s got. Say 30, maybe 35 folks on his team. And as I’ve talked to him, you know, as you hire new people, this younger youngest generation coming into the workforce, you need to have the language and the radar to understand their perspectives because yeah, the gen Z perspectives.

Are social justice warriors, like, so that just they’d come into it naturally, right. That way. And then your client base is way more diverse than it has been typically depending on a business you’re operating. So just in terms of your workforce, your client base, I mean, we’re a multiracial, multicultural multi-generational society. You don’t really have the option to have one flavor. So it’s like, we’re a blend. 

Didi: On the, seeing it differently, I’d love for you to explain a little bit. We, as a company, 400 plus of us all got on a zoom conference in, I think may or early June. And we went through one of your micro-lessons and it was really eye-popping because it brought us all into a room where there was definitely injustice happening.

But it was more obvious to some than it was to others. And we went through this process of learning together. So can you talk a little bit about your micro-lessons and how you came to that, what that feels like for your customers and what kind of response you get to people using these two to make you feel like you’re in the room to having to take this on?

Janine: I think I would answer it this way. I think that what I have seen over the years that is most impactful and moving the needle in diversity inclusion is humanizing. Different people. And so just a little quick segue, there’s a story about Sandra Day O’Connor, you know, on the US Supreme court. And she was not receptive to gay marriage, gay families.

Like that was not something that she felt comfortable with. And this is going back, you know, in the eighties. And one of her law clerks at the time was gay. And adopting a child with his partner and because she totally respected this person and had a really warm connection and relationship with him, she said to some of her other law clerks, well, what do I do?

I’m like, what justice, what do you, what do you do when somebody is having a baby? You throw them a baby shower. So here’s this very, very conservative justice throwing a baby shower for her gay law clerk. Who’s adopting a baby with his partner. I tell that story because when I first heard about it, it was just so impactful for me that here’s somebody who doesn’t believe in it.

Doesn’t believe that some folks should have those liberties, right. That was way back when we’ve since crossed that bridge. And now we’re all hopefully on the same page, but adding the human element is what changes minds because it’s emotional. She cared. And so what we try to do is take a situation that we know is going to be emotional for some, maybe not for others, but through.

This peer to peer learning element where you see how others weigh-in and the experiences that others have, people you respect, people that you work with. It just adds this emotional element that changes all of us. I mean, I think all of us became way more understanding and receptive to black lives matter.

When we saw with our own eyes, what was, what some of the injustices are, and it’s very emotional. So that to me is really kind of a very short, direct path, changing people’s attitudes, humanize people and bring it home to somebody what some of us have to deal with and others don’t because I think at our hearts, I operate from on the assumption that we’re all good people trying to do right in the world.

Didi: Yeah, I think what was fascinating, what Janine is referencing here too. So there’ll be a small vignette. They’ll watch a video. This particular one I did, we did was, um, going into a conference room where a group of people had just walked out and had written black lives matter on the, on the whiteboard.

And then one of the people you walk into the room with, goes in and crosses it out and writes all lives matter. And the question first prompt is just like, and I may be misremembering this a little bit, but the first prompt is what do you think about that was that right? And that’s where we usually stop in real life. It’s like, you read about it wherever you say. No, that’s not right. But then the next question is like, so what would you say and who would you say it to? And if they didn’t agree with you, then what would you do? And you’re asked this question and you see this pie chart pop up to say the 400 other people who are watching this with you, what percent read with you? And it was super. Scary and fascinating and interesting, but also to see the evolution of when you’re taking action in the moment and how we came along as a group. And I think that is where the action that practice takes the best intentions to a different place because you’re actually in it personally, then realizing peace you’re immersed in it.

Janine: And then I think we have another question. Have any of your friends or family ever been stopped by the police for no apparent reason. Right? So most folks are like, no, but then you see a demographic of your buddies at work. They’re not ever going to say this to you, but you see, well, yes. And then there’s a reflection of how many times that that’s happened and that, you know, that’s that emotional piece that just brings it home. It’s like, Oh, wow. We’re not all living the same experience here. 

Didi: So in the business workplace, there’s this context that many people aren’t exposed to, but then there’s a lot that we are. So another course of yours I looked at was, and it’s an assessment that’s actually available to anybody who’s listening. So we’ll have a link at the end of the show where you could try it out and check in your organization and just see how. How you stack up in terms of where you think you are right now on your own best intentions, but it’s these nuances super important. One pronouncing your colleague’s name, correctly, understanding where they’re from, what their background is asking those questions of curiosity, as opposed to, if it’s not something that you’re familiar with make yourself familiar with it. And I think there’s these nuances that we overlook every day that make a difference in terms of feeling like you were included and acknowledged and seen in an environment. And what’s super interesting or challenging perhaps Janine right now is when we’re remote. Or when a lot of us are remote or in a hybrid situation, what are some of the things that you’re thinking about right now to help companies be more aware of making their teams be seen and included? Regardless of if they’re doing it from there as in my case, daughter’s bedroom or somewhere else and not in the office. 

Janine: So I would actually urge everyone to go ahead and take our as a complimentary DNI assessments on our website, because that’s at least a starting point. Right? So you need to know where, where as a team, where are we strong?

Where do we have some areas of opportunity? And then when you see where you have areas of opportunity, like I know I was just talking to another client earlier today. And one of their areas of opportunity is allyship. And then you just sketch out a program for leaders and managers in a very consistent, systematic way, empower others to, to address groups within the workforce on whatever issue asked people to, to lead team meetings, just in a very disciplined, deliberate way.

Just allow people to step up and take a leadership activity if you will, a leadership role, but a leader perspective. And for folks that are not expecting it, it’s such an appreciated gesture. 

Didi: Is that a gesture, an action start to pay to be in addition to certainly taking the assessment to where you are right now of where you, what you might think about that are doable places to start?

Janine: Let me just start with our workplace, what we call our workplace social indicators, which are basically the vital signs to healthy inclusion.

And we’ve seen from our data that the two vital signs that have the most impact on any team would be a system for making decisions and then demographic experience. So there’s, there are some others too, but they have, you know, less impact. Like if you can make, if you can. Optimize on those two, then you could have a whole lot of inference.

So one is super easy. I think, to put in place, it’s just going through from hiring to, to offboarding or career development, just go through the different phases and make sure that there’s just, you know, a simple process. For you and or your team to be making decisions when it comes to interviewing recruiting performance management, that doesn’t take a whole lot of time and that alone is going to actually help kind of minimize any kind of emotional kind of biases that, that are not helpful to outcomes.

So that’s one and on the demographic experience, you know, that just is referring to people that have a broad range. And their network and their peer group of people reflecting different demographics. And we know from our data that when you have in particular leadership that has that trait of broad demographic experience, and they just have less blind spots, right.

They have just more life experiences, more interactions with all these different types of people. And that just means more information to help inform kind of their practices and their decision-making. And less blind spots. So if there are one or two things to do this year, those would be my suggestion.

Tracy: Hi, I’m Tracy. I’m the Cheif People Officer at Zenefits. And I’m joining you today to share a few takeaways and insights that I got from that fantastic conversation between TD and Janine. I live with a created Emtrain and. More than just training. What they do is help organizations create awareness and understanding and drive cultural change. So a few key takeaways on how to do that in your own business. 

First of all, if you are not the executive. Who is the champion for this exercise? You need to find one to coach champion with you. So as the people ops person, you’re going to want a partner on this. And all you need to do is find one other executive to help you get coached champion. And if you are an executive in the company, you can be that champion yourself and maybe find another one to help you. But at a minimum, find somebody to support this initiative. It will make it a lot easier. 

Second of all build a strategy that fits your business. Let’s face it. One size doesn’t fit all. There’s no playbook you can use. And everybody does the same exact thing everywhere. So tailor your plan appropriately, and you may need to start small, which is one thing that might be more than what you’re doing now and its progress. So don’t be afraid to start small. It’s better than doing nothing.

Third, I loved her example about Sandra Day O’Connor. I’d never heard that story before adding humanity into your tee and I programs is critical. So for example, something we recently did at Zenefits, we had the mother of, one of our very well-respected long-term employees come in and talk to us the whole company about what it was like to live through Jim Crow, America. A powerful moving story. Very real and relatable and all the more. High impact because this wasn’t just some stranger off the street. This is the mom of one of our friends and colleagues. So there are things you can do that don’t cost a lot of money, make it really relatable, and make it really human 

last, but not least. Enable and empower others to help you. You’re not in this alone, nor should you be a, it doesn’t all have to be just the people ops team, trying to juggle all of this. Your role is to support and empower and create structure and a safe space for this cultural change to happen. And I think you’ll find that you have people in the organization who want to find ways to contribute.

And so you just need to find those people and see how you can work together with them. And it can even be a great leadership opportunity for them as well. You do have to be careful not to give people extra work to do. In addition to their day job, that makes them feel stressed or burnt out. But most people will find some time to work on these projects and it’s career-enhancing and it will help the whole company move forward.

Didi: I’m Didi. This was PIVOT.  If you have questions, you want us to answer on our show, check out the link in our show notes below and we’ll get it covered. And Janine is offering all listeners access to a free DNI diagnostic. You can check it out at emtrain.com/microlessons. Then there’s a group of micro lessons called diversity inclusion diagnostic might be interesting for you to learn just how close your intentions are to your practices. Check it out. And thanks for listening.

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