More than lip service: Bar event promises frank discussion on diversity and inclusion

Shirley Emehelu, partner at Chiesa Shahinian & Giantomasi, gets straight to the point: Diversity and inclusion programs are not going to work unless you have buy-in from the top of a firm or company. And they’re not going to work if your efforts are only geared toward those who believe in the mission.

The non-believers are the ones companies need to try to win over, Emehelu said. And you need to be ready to handle any thoughts they have on the issue.

“You are going to need the support and the buy-in of folks who actually may be questioning: ‘Why do we need this? Aren’t we in a sort of post-racial world? Our vice president, Kamala Harris, is a woman of color who graduated from a Black college. So, why do we still need these types of programs?’” she said.

“Paying too much lip service to the true believers and ignoring those who may be on the sidelines may be detrimental. Because, if you want to have long-term commitment, you are going to need the buy-in of those folks, too. You’re going to have to slowly change some hearts and minds.”

Emehelu, the chair of the Diversity and Inclusion Committee at CSG, is the co-chair of a summit and roundtable event presented by the Garden State Bar Association next Wednesday.

The event, “Paying More Than Lip Service: Actualizing Diversity & Inclusion in the Workplace,” will take on all of these issues and more.

Register here for the event.

The event includes a number of top thought leaders from around the state, including Hester Agudosi, the state’s chief diversity officer.

It is co-chaired by Nasheena Porter, an assistant prosecutor and co-chair of legal hiring in the Union County Prosecutor’s Office.

Emehelu said it will include a lot of straight talk. That’s the only way to have impact, she said.

Emehelu talked about a few aspects of diversity and inclusion training that may come up.

  • Buy-in from the top: If you don’t have it from the highest people in the organization, you won’t succeed, she said.
  • An understanding that diversity impacts the bottom line: In an era when companies are examining racial justice and social inclusion like never before, failing to present a diversified team to clients ultimately can cost you.

Emehelu, however, was quick to point out that firms should not embrace diversity and inclusion because it enables them to check a box — firms should embrace it because it helps their business, she said.

Why would you want to exclude women or people of color? Emehelu asked.

“When you do that, you are excluding a pool of talent,” she said. “We have so many amazing people of color and women at our firm who are brilliant and who are hard-working. So, if you don’t make effective use of your talent pool, you’re really just shooting yourself in the foot.”

Emehelu warns that creating a diverse and inclusive environment is not easy. Attracting talent is one thing; creating a culture that will help retain it is another.

Firms, she said, need to nurture all of their talent.

“Recruitment is, in and of itself, a challenge,” she said. “Too often, it’s a bunch of firms clamoring for the same group of highly qualified people. But it is that retention piece that still remains a challenge.”

It takes a number of steps, Emehelu said.

“Formal programs, mentorship programs, can be helpful, but there has to be other mechanisms in place,” she said. “Firms need to look at how matters are staffed, making sure that there’s equitable distribution of assignments and it’s not always necessarily the same person being selected.”

That starts at the highest level, Emehelu said.

“The tone from the top is important,” she said. “Those who are leading firms, are leading companies, need to do more than just offer lip service, which is the title of our program.

“Women and people of color need to be given a seat at the table. It can’t simply that be that companies or firms just report their diversity numbers and check a box. If you’re going on a pitch, you have to make sure you know that there is some level of diversity in your pitches. And that diversity needs to go beyond pitch day.”

Emehelu and the panel of speakers will be speaking about all of this and more.

“I think it will be a very frank discussion,” she said.

Other speakers include:

Register here for the event.

(Editor’s note: ROI-NJ is a media partner for the event.)