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Inclusion of diversity in the workplace - Joe Gerstandt [Interview]

Inclusion of diversity in the workplace - Joe Gerstandt [Interview]

August 18, 2023
Inclusion of Diversity in the workplace - Joe Gerstandt [Interview]

About Joe Gerstandt

Joe Gerstandt is a diversity and inclusion strategist, helping organizations achieve a more inclusive workforce. He is a well-known keynote speaker and corporate trainer. He has conducted workshops and training for numerous multinational companies. Joe is clearly the voice we need, to replace anything and everything that is not aligned with our world of today.  With a large range of experience in this field, we are truly happy to invite Joe, to our interview series. 

Aishwarya Jain

Inclusion of Diversity in the workplace - Joe Gerstandt [Interview]

We have the pleasure of welcoming Joe Gerstandt today to our interview series. I’m Aishwarya Jain from the peopleHum team. Before we begin, just a quick intro of PeopleHum -  peopleHum is an end-to-end, one-view, integrated human capital management automation platform, the winner of the 2019 global Codie Award for HCM that is specifically built for crafted employee experiences and the future of work.

We run the peopleHum blog and video channel which receives upwards of 200,000 visitors a year and publish around 2 interviews with well-known names globally, every month. 


Welcome, Joe. We are thrilled to have you. 


It's nice to be here. Thanks for the invite.


Our pleasure Joe. So, you know, it's very interesting Joe, I did see your LinkedIn profile and it says ‘he him his’, which is after your full name.

What is the reason for missing out on the feminine of the tags? How do you define inclusion in your world versus The World?


Well, I think different folks have different preferred pronouns. Those are my preferred pronouns. I just put those out there so that folks don't have to ask or enquire.

And I think when I think about inclusion, I think there's a lot of different and probably nuanced ways to think about and talk about inclusion.

The baseline definition in my mind of inclusion is something that happens in a place or space where I can both truly belong, be accepted, be an insider and still be true to who I am and tell the truth.

I think if those two things exist, that's the bulk of what we're talking about with this idea of inclusion.



And how come you became interested in this and where did it all start? Was there an experience or what was your inspiration to get into this? 


Yeah. That's a pretty long and complicated story. A lot of things had to happen, so I, a middle-aged or older, straight, white male, and while I do this work now and I've been doing it for a couple of decades, and I take it very seriously. I think this work is an extension of who I am. It hasn't always been that way. 30 years ago, I probably would have rolled my eyes to what I do for a living today. So, a lot of things had to change along the way, things in my head and things in my heart had to change. 

And I think there's a lot of parts to that story, but one of the probably biggest parts of that story is about 20 to 25 years ago, I made a career change. I had been working in Corpse America, had been doing sales and sales events, and there were some aspects of that work that I enjoyed but I knew I just hadn't found my place yet. It wasn't my calling and I made a career change.

Then I went to work in the nonprofit world. The first nonprofit organization work was a small Grassroots Organization called Nebraska AIDS profit and the rescue AIDS project provides support for people living with HIV and AIDS but also does prevention, education, and outreach work. And I went to work on the outreach side, and when I went to work there, I already thought I was open-minded and progressive and those kinds of things, But everything changed while I worked there.

My view of the world changed, my view of myself changed. I was surrounded by people who were different than I was, who had life experience. I saw people treated differently than I was treated. I simply hadn't been exposed to a lot of that world previously in my life. And I was now surrounded with evidence that we weren't all treated the same way. I knew people that were treated differently.

Not because of what they did but because of who they were, they were treated differently by their community, organizations, by employers, by landlords, by churches, by family members. I was just coming in with that evidence and so it changed the way that I saw the world and changed the way that I saw myself. I think at that point I believe that you could be on the right side of things.

You could be a good person, just by not doing bad things.

I look back at my life today and I wasn't racist, I wasn't sexist, but at the same time, I wasn't doing anything to fight against those things.

And so in like a second, everything changed in that area and it took me a while to find the work that I do today but that was where I turned the corner. I started moving in this direction. I've been doing this work now for over 15 years, close to 20 years. I did diversity exclusion work first internally in my lab.

I led diversity inclusion for a regional health care system, but for the past 15 years now, I have been doing this work external work with leadership teams and organizations that help them find new clarity around this work and put new practices. I'm very fortunate to have found work that I believe in and that I think I have, hopefully, a little bit of talent.


Oh, absolutely. And, you know, thank you so much for that detailed explanation. It really helps me connect with you. And it's very bold that, you know, you just did not sit on it but at the same time acted on it as well. Well, you changed the way you worked completely.

And as they say, ‘If you witness a crime and you don't do anything about it, you are as much a propagator of the crime because you're not doing anything about it". In your case, I think you've done something amazing. You've actually acted on it. And I was also talking to Debra Ruh, who was also into a lot of inclusion and diversity. And what she told me and said, there is a mindset problem with people. They just do not want to include these people in their workplaces.

But Joe, what according to you is the real definition of inclusion and diversity? Now, I do understand that it's been used extensively all over the Internet, but it would be really helpful if an expert like you can actually define what really is inclusion and diversity.


I think there's a lot of confusion and misunderstanding and misinformation. I do a lot of inclusion of diversity in workplace presentations and workshops, and people walk into those rooms with a lot of different expectations. There's a lot of different things that these words bring to mind. I think still to this day, I think one of the most valuable things that an organization can do is to make sure that there's a common language in place.

To me, I try to keep my definition pretty simple. Personally, it means difference. It's that definition just because it's the one that I find in the dictionary and that doesn't mean that all kinds of different are the same, they're not. They have different consequences in different contexts and different historical backgrounds. But that's what diversity means. And that's the definition of that, I say, too.

It takes a little different form and again, like I said, when I talk about inclusion, the baseline definition starts with this: 

Inclusion is an experiential outcome and it happens when I can both, truly belong to another group of human beings and still be true to who I am and tell the truth.

I think that's kind of a baseline definition of what inclusion means for me.


Okay! Yeah, I think that would help our audience to really understand a lot about what exactly is inclusion. Because that too, said there is a lot of confusion and they don't understand a lot of the term.


I think inclusion, especially inclusion, has become such a popular idea but it's still true that today I could walk into most organizations, even organizations that brag about how inclusive they are, even organizations that get awards for inclusion.

I can walk into most of those organizations today. I could ask 10 senior leaders at random what inclusion is, why it's valuable, and how we capture that value? I will get 10 different answers and maybe, more importantly, seven or eight of those answers won't even make any sense. They won't be logical. They'll just be kind of a buzz word, sort of really nice, warm fuzzy words it's a really popular idea. 

Inclusion is still a vague, abstract idea for most organizations and some people think that's a small point but it's actually a big point because if you can't explain clearly and concisely what it is, it's really hard for you to figure out how to do and what to measure along the way.

and that's the reality of where most organizations are at today, even if they truly value it as an idea.

And they don't know what to mention that the number one phone call I get today is, 'We're ready to be more inclusive. We don't know what to do. But these are smart people. They've figured lots of other things out, right? 

They've found new markets, they develop new products, they've trained new workforces, but they can't figure any of this stuff out on their own because they don't know what it is. It's this mysterious black box. And so I think that the foundational language of logic is really to give most managers a clear, concise definition of what it is.

Most of them can figure out some of what they need to do on their own without hiring a consultant, without HR people being in the room without having especially that but we're in this weird place with this work. I think that it's great that you ask about definitions and inclusion is a big and complex idea.

It doesn't need to mean the same things to all people, all organizations, but within an organization, I think one of the most valuable things you can do is put that common language, like spend some time thinking and fighting for a definition that is clear and concise. Stop writing beautiful statements of commitment that sound fantastic but don't mean anything but put a clear and concise definition in place.

People start to understand then and once they really understand it, not understand it according to some pundit or podcaster who has told him what it is. Once they can really understand what you're talking about, they can start to see some of the things that they need to do on their own.


Absolutely. I think a lot of companies are just unaware of what it is. For them, it's just a fancy word that they see on the internet way too frequently and everyone swings around using hashtag diversity, hashtag inclusion. So it's also the downside of technologies of social media because you just kind of lose the meaning of the translation.

What do you believe still are the gaps that these organizations have to think about to make workforce inclusion real and work for everyone?


Well, I think one of the biggest gaps is what we've just discussed that basic understanding of those clear and concise definitions, that common language, I think that's kind of the starting point. I think the next biggest gap is in behaviors, I see a lot of organizations.

So, most of my clients are medium to large corporations and I see a lot of them make a commitment to diversity and inclusion, hire people to do some work, develop a statement of commitment, maybe a business, build a counsel, start to do some amends, maybe start to change the policies.

I've seen organizations spend two or three years doing that work and spend a lot of money and those things can have some value. Most of those things don't have any impact on employee experience after all of that work in those two or three years it doesn't feel any different to be an employee, it doesn't feel any or less conclusively.

I think if we really want to change the way employees feel, if we want them to feel more included, probably the big blow for that is changing the behaviors of the people around, especially their manager.

Organizations got to have a very candid conversation about behavior. These are inclusive behaviors and leadership practices and these are not. But I don't see many organizations doing that.

They seem to be very reluctant to get down to specific behaviors and until we change behaviors and especially the behaviors of leaders and managers, we're not gonna do much to make employees feel more included. I think that is the biggest step.

If you start to get down to specific behaviors, then you've got things to hold people accountable to. You got to know what inclusive behaviors and leadership practices look like in your organization, you can start to write that in job descriptions you can start including those things in job interviews, you can consider them in performance evaluations, you can consider them in promotion decisions. There are some really easy ways to hold folks accountable.


Absolutely. Do you think that mindset receipts behavior? Because I understand that behavioral changes, you know they could be external.

But what about the intrinsic mindset? How do you go about changing that?


That's a really unfair and complicated question asked. But it is a great question, and I think the kind of inconvenient truth about behavior change is that...

I think real, sincere, sustained behavior change almost always involves a certain amount of identity change. That's deep and serious and hard work.

But I just look back at myself as an example, when I changed my view of myself, all of my behaviors and actions and motivations changed. 

I think one of the reasons why organizations do the work that they do around this work is they do stuff that's much easier, like getting some budget to hire someone to do the work and start a council and change policy, that might be difficult inside the organization. You've gotta maneuver and convince people, but it's a much different kind of work than changing people's hearts and their beliefs.

That's hard work but I think that's kind of what this work is about at its very core. And I think what we're talking about now is that is the reason why a lot of one-off diversity training things kind of don't have a lot of impact.

But when it comes to this work, getting clear on my beliefs about the world and other people, understanding other people, understanding what difference means, really being honest about how I feel about difference and around differences. That takes time. It's slow and some of it is reflective and introspective and difficult work and confusing.

Not very many corporations are very good at doing that kind of stuff because it looks less efficient and orderly than a lot of the other things that we do in the name of professional development, organizational change but that's where a lot of the work is and I don't know if there's a formula for that.

I think different people need different things and have different levels, but

I think putting people in situations where they're encouraged to be honest, they're encouraged to take risks, they're encouraged to be vulnerable, that's the kind of conversation that sets an organization apart.

And I've seen people work through that process and make those changes and have those conversations. But it's different, then again a lot of what we do in the name of training and professional development. It's slower and it's messier. It's unpleasant and confusing at times, but it's really important. If you do that hard, messy work well, I don't think you have to do most of the other stuff.

The work starts to happen on its own because people actually understand, they really believe in it. They're not saying we believe in it because we are supposed to say that. It's at a very deeper level and they'll start to figure it out on their own. And we won't have to have councils, we won't have to have the infrastructure on this work because it happens on its own. But there's a lot of unlearning and kind of exploration and displacement that has to happen upfront.

And it's hard to even get the space and the time for a lot of organizations to do that because we want to get as many people as we can through the training so we've only got a couple of hours and you could do some stuff in a couple of hours but you can't do that kind of stuff that we're talking about. That's much, much slower. And it happens at a different pace and in a different tone.


Yes, Absolutely. I just, I love the way you say that. You have to unlearn to actually learn this and that is a very important step in talking about some sensitive topics. And it's kind of been considered as a taboo in companies, and they don't want to talk about it. They just wanna ignore and pretend that everything's fine. But it really isn't. And I mean, I'm sure that, you know, that's a big challenge.

But have you seen it in your career lifetime? Have you seen organizations being open about this? Have you seen them being more accepting of this?


Well not a lot, but I have seen some examples. I have one current client of mine that's doing a pretty serious, pretty intentional development program for managers. Those folks spend probably about five or six full days together, spread out over a few months. There's homework in between. It's pretty small and those conversations are pretty candid, really digging into identity, culture, biases and stereotypes, and how we're socialized.

And there are a few other examples that I've seen. It still isn't the norm. There's more pressure around this work as more expectation builds up around this work as more companies become aware of the fact they spent hundreds of dollars or hundreds of thousands of dollars or millions of dollars on this work.

As more companies become aware of that, I think they're starting to realize that this isn't just you can't just be a class. It can't just be a class or council or event. There are some real deep people work that has to happen. Hopefully, we'll see more of that happen in the year, but I do see some of that happen now.


I see. And, you know, I think we can safely assume that millennials and Gen-Z, they are more open about this and they call out things that they don't like. And they're more vocal about it. And the guys in the suits, they're much more uptight. And you know, this is just about the reputation and the aura.

Can you see a generation gap between the baby boomers and the millennials and the Gen-Z?


I don't know! For sure there's some differences. I don't know if I would completely agree with the idea that the younger generations are more open, for sure stereotypes change. And I can even see that between myself and my parents.

I can remember my parents talking about, my parents grew up in rural middle of America, but I remember them talking about how when they were kids, dating a Protestant or a Catholic was kind of a big deal. And today, that wouldn't even register as being a form of actual difference. 

So I think what differences matter and what differences mean changes from generation to generation. I think stereotypes change. During my lifetime, if you look at how women are portrayed on television, for example, just in my lifetime, that's changed drastically. So there are certainly some differences. There are differences in stereotypes. There's differences in what shows up as a meaningful difference whether or not there's differences in openness. I'm not convinced of that.

I think to some extent there's more bias today around political and religious differences maybe then there was a generation ago at least in this country, I think, bias and stereotypes vary greatly from country to country and culture to culture. 

I think the people that are advocates for diversity inclusion in the younger generations are much more outspoken at much younger ages early in their lives, which is a fantastic thing. Maybe social media has made some of that possible and encouraged some of that.

There are people today, saying things that are the same gender and in the same race that I am that came from the same part of the country but decades early in their life, they've got strong opinions about this stuff, and so I think that is fantastic. But I don't know that I would again agree with those generations that there is a difference in openness, I don't know, I'd have to think about that a little bit more.


But at least in India, what I have seen personally is that you know, the younger generation, it's much more tolerable and diligent about these things. And there is a wave of people who are calling out things that are unfair to different communities. So, yeah, I think you know this is somewhat progressing on that.

And, interestingly, I was talking to Dorothy Dalton and she was telling me that women are just portrayed as objects of beauty and perfection. And most movies which are female-oriented. They're just not given that much value, right? Even in the movie, the little mermaid she was saying that she's not sure the main role she's not. She's not in the lead role, and it's about the mermaid. But it's unfortunate, right?

What is your take on feminism if you have one? How would you like to sum it up?


You know, I think that in this country and in our culture, we've made a lot of progress in how women are portrayed in the media. But there's still a lot of work to do, and I'm appreciative of folks that have been helping us stay focused on that because I think it's an easy thing to overlook, especially if you identify as a man.

Sometimes it's an easy thing to not see, but if you really take a look at the numbers of women who are in leading roles and I've even seen some studies about just the number of words spoken in a movie by gender, it pretty stark today.

That stuff has an impact. Gina Davis started an organization but it is really focused on research around this exact happening. How women are portrayed in the media. Some of the research that has come out of there is pretty interesting.

And I don't remember the exact numbers. But one of the studies that I saw that I believe came from, was for example, if you see a movie or a story and 15% of the characters are women, and a man watches that, and you ask them how many of the characters were women? The men will say that it was actually close to 50%. So, like it's recalibrating how we perceive these images that we were exposed to the narratives, the stories, the characters.

All of those things are actually kind of recalibrating how we perceive things and what our expectations are and what normalcy is and this doesn't just play out around gender but also plays around race.

And even if you're not paying attention to it or thinking about it, or even if you don't care about that issue, and it starts to impact how you perceive the world, well, you think you know about people, what you expect of people, what your ideas about normalcy are.

So I think there are more people paying attention to it, but movies and television still have a huge impact on this. We're inundated with pretty stereotypical ideas and images about women representing minorities, and there's even a whole lot of kinds of people that still aren't even really represented in movies and television.

Folks that are incarcerated, folks that are non-binary or transgender. I think we still have a lot of work to do and how we tell stories and portray the world in making some progress but we still have a lot of work to do.


Yeah, absolutely agree. We have a love of work to do, and, I think I mean, there's still progress somewhere, but it has to be much more rapid because I think the data points that we collect subconsciously and media being a very big contributor to that, it changes the way we think and the way the process, you know, and that kind of prenup goes into the workplaces as well.


And there plays a huge role in our conversation about bias and especially unintentional bias.  

Regardless of what your intentions are, regardless of how good of a person you want to be, if you don't know real-life human beings from a particular social group, then your brain has basically nothing else to go on.

So I hear you know when we fight about characters and movies and how people are portrayed. I hear some people say it's really not that big of a deal, but it is a really big deal because that plays a huge role in those biases. And those biases show up in teachers and politicians and police officers and doctors.

And it has real long term life and death consequences, actually, so it is an important deal. It is a big deal, how people are portrayed, how social groups are portrayed, how stories are told from whose perspective they're told. All of those things have a profound impact. They have an impact on adults, and for sure, they have an impact on children.


Absolutely, and it's mass media. So you know, it's not just that you're affecting this one individual, but you're actually affecting societies. Still, it's very, very impractical.

And how does employee experience of the design around needs to change to actually include workforce inclusion?


Well, I think that designing employee experience and the practice of management both need to change in a very fundamental way. Both of those are in a war still viewed in inclusion of diversity in workplace as another thing, an extra thing, a side project, extra credits, and I think, properly understood they are actually at the very core. They're fundamental to employees' experience and the practice of management.

If your practice of management doesn't start with inclusion, if it doesn't start with what do we need to fully aggregate the different identities and experiences and perspectives that we have access to, then it's designed to be wasteful. 

Someone's gonna have to come along and fix that at some point. The same is true of employee experience. So I think I don't know how to make this happen. But I think that those two things need to start with and be centered around the idea of inclusion. Otherwise, they're never gonna live up to their potential.

We're still doing all of this work trying to convince managers that diversity inclusion are legitimate things that are really an effective way to do this work. When the practice of management was designed, it should have started and been focused on inclusion from the beginning.  

If inclusion isn't one of the first priorities, one of the first practices of leadership, then there's something wrong with that leadership.

It's designed in the employed, an ineffective and wasteful way, and the same is true of employees' experience so I don't know how to make that paradigm shift.

There are some individuals that because of who they are, because of their beliefs, they enter employee experience or they enter the practice of management with that mindset in that priority.

But most folks don't. They come at it from a different way, and then we have to try to course-correct along the way and convince them and we have to make the business case. We have to do all of these things that are incredibly inefficient still, and maybe this isn't even a fair answer.

But I think if employees' experience is gonna deliver on its potential. It has to have to prioritize inclusion. That has to be one of the goals, regardless of who they are, their talents or their abilities are to be fully included in the culture of this organization.


Right. That's graph side that you don't get still stock yet couldn't been seeing organizations that this is important rather than going out and charting out plans to really action in, we are still stuck to like step one.

Do you think this will change after the coronavirus is over? Do you think there will be a different mindset?


Just for the sake of context, we're kind of in the middle of the first phase of this whole thing maybe, if that's all right. I don't know. I think for sure there's gonna be a shift of mindsets. I don't know what that shift is gonna be exactly.

I think a lot of people, a lot of organizations, are uncertain of a lot of things right now. I think they're rethinking a lot of things. I don't know what the corporate mindset is gonna be like coming out of this, but I do think it's gonna be different in some ways. I think in some cases it will probably be a lot better, and in some cases, it will probably be worse. But I don't know. I don't even think I have a vague, rambling answer to that particular question.


Yeah, I really hope so, because I think this is a time when everybody's looking at things in perspective and really trying to connect with each other, being more inclusive as such. So I really do hope so. You know, things change.


I hope so, too. And I see some of that evidence as well. I see at least in the network of folks that I'm connected to. I don’t know how representative of the world that network is. But...

I definitely see more caring, more kindness, more empathy, just in individuals, and how they're interacting with each other.

I think where things are at right now, it's still fairly early. And I think a lot of things are still uncertain.


Absolutely. And, I would really love to continue this conversation with you. I think I could go on and on, but I think to do like a part two of this. So I'm gonna leave you with the last question.

Are there any other important sound bites that you'd like to leave for our viewers?


Gosh! I don't know. I would just take the opportunity to remind folks to be kind to themselves. I think even people that are connected to diversity inclusion work we're so focused on not getting in other people's way that sometimes we overlook our tendency to get in our own way. So I think to be kind to themselves and also be kind to each other. But thanks again for the invite, I've enjoyed the conversation and would love to do part two.


Thank you so much, Joe!  It was a pleasure talking to you. I really appreciate your time and you sharing your views with us. For me personally, it's been a really great experience. And yeah, I'll keep in touch with you. And we could do part two.


Great. Thanks for the invite.

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