Building Inclusive & Accessible Cultures Through HR and Communications
As communicators, we have the power to drive meaningful conversations and change in the workplace.
In our “Ask the DEI Expert” series, we connect with DEI and communications leaders to understand how their work affects all aspects of the employee lifecycle, how we can build better pipelines and systems, how to remove bias in our systems, and how we can elevate DEI in the workplace while speaking honestly and leading from the heart.
We had the pleasure of sitting down with Kamna Narain, the internal communications advisor and coach behind CK Consulting, to dive into her journey through the world of work as a communications professional and life coach with the unique perspective shaped by her experiences as a person with a disability.
CAN YOU TELL US A BIT ABOUT YOUR BACKGROUND?
I began my career as a writer, and that remains a core muscle that I enjoy strengthening every chance I get. Over the last 25 years I’ve worked in a variety of communications roles. My focus on internal communications, including organizational and technology change communications began in 2009 when I joined McKesson Corporation, a Fortune 14 company.
In four short years I had the opportunity to do everything from shaping a communications strategy for distribution center employees to career development campaigns, as well as leading the change communications for a major internal IT Transformation. I built the internal communications and employee engagement foundation for the organization along with supporting its 12-person executive team.
I’ve also been a life and career transitions coach since 2008, starting my practice on the side while in-house, and making it part of CK Consulting in 2013.
WHAT MADE YOU SHIFT INTO CONSULTING & COACHING?
I wasn’t sick of the corporate world, and it wasn’t the product of some strategic decision. Really, it was the result of my circumstances. I have a visual disability and chronic lung condition but in 2013, I was experiencing more serious issues with my vision and health. I reached the point where I realized I needed to leave my full-time in-house job.
"IT WAS A REALLY TOUGH DECISION. I LOVED MY JOB AND LOVED WHAT I WAS DOING – BUT I HAD REACHED A POINT WHERE I COULD NO LONGER MAINTAIN MY PERFORMANCE THE WAY I WANTED TO AND MY HEALTH THE WAY I NEEDED TO.
It’s the toughest decision I’ve ever made in my professional life but also the smartest. I still miss it and am tempted to apply for the many enticing senior-level job opportunities out there. But when you have a disability, you learn to adapt and listen to what your body tells you. I’m grateful that even as a consultant and contractor I’ve had the opportunity to apply my skills, grow and work with amazing companies like Blue Shield of California, Kaiser Permanente, McKesson and Patelco Credit Union.
THINKING ABOUT THE PANDEMIC AND THE SHIFT TO REMOTE WORK, WHAT ARE YOU SEEING TODAY COMPARED TO WHEN YOU LEFT YOUR IN-HOUSE ROLE?
For people with disabilities and health conditions, who always preferred or needed remote work, the pandemic has been a “Great Equalizer.” It’s leveled the playing field of how we are seen. When I join a meeting, walking in with my white cane is not the first thing people see. Unless I choose to share it, meeting attendees would never know I’m using enlarging software and have my colors inverted.
Working hours and associated expectations are also shifting. If I think about my experience in my leaving my in-house role, it wasn’t because the company gave up on me. They were actually willing to go out of their way to offer accommodations. But I was worried that if I was out of sight, I’d be out of mind. At a time when working from home was an exception, remote work seemed like a one-way ticket to being irrelevant. If I had to make the same decision two years from now, I might’ve opted to stay.
People are more understanding now of what it is like to work with limitations and working at different hours. One of the things I like about consulting is working when my body is at its optimal best. If I need to nap or step away for an appointment, I can do that guilt-free. You can’t do it as much as an in-house employee, although that may change sooner than we think. I’m seeing signs of it already.
WHAT ARE SOME THE BARRIERS YOU’VE SEEN IN THE WORKPLACE FOR EMPLOYEES WITH DISABILITIES OR BIPOC EMPLOYEES?
Just like with any aspect of diversity, different people have different experiences. I’ve been fortunate; I’ve never directly experienced overt bias or ableism, in my career. I attribute some of that to my own comfort level and confidence in being up front about my disability. Not everyone with a disability may feel that way though, so we need to alert and sensitive.
What I realized early on is how few role models are out there. I’m ambitious and wanted to continue to grow and advance, but I didn’t have any examples like that in the corporate world when I chose to leave my in-house job.
“FOR SOMEONE WHO WANTED TO CONTINUE TO GROW, ADVANCE AND HAVE INFLUENCE, YOU CAN’T DO THAT IF YOU’RE KNOWN AS THE 'SICK GIRL' WHO WORKS FROM HOME. IT WAS HARD TO ENVISION HOW I WOULD BE SUCCESSFUL IF I WORKED AND NETWORKED ANY LESS. I COULDN’T RECONCILE IT.
That’s when it hit me: it can be really hard for people with disabilities to see others like themselves and how they can advance. The way organizational culture works, especially in America, what is celebrated is“work, work, work!” It’s not conducive to someone who is trying to deal with health conditions.
Is there overt bias or discrimination? No, they’ll make accommodations. But under the surface, you’re expected to perform at a certain level, the tension/dichotomy is how you perform at a certain level without getting special treatment.
In business culture – no matter how large or small the company - the things that get rewarded when it comes to performance reviews and calibration are the relationships you’ve built (often in semi-social settings), going to conferences, and the “extra credit,” like a pet project or developing a special skill. If I’m trying to just get all my work done so I can rest and take care of my health at the end of the day, rather than head out for drinks, it can hard for someone to do all that. New parents or caregivers probably face similar challenges.
WHAT CAN IC AND HR TEAMS DO TO BUILD MORE INCLUSIVE AND ACCESSIBLE WORKPLACES?
Start by looking at accessibility as going beyond ADA (though, make sure you have an ADA understanding if you’re in HR). Attend panels and conferences to deepen your awareness and understanding. Talk with people like me, who are living it, not just people who have counseled or worked with people with disabilities.
"We are in a vulnerable position every day, not because of fear of retribution, but because we don’t want to be seen as less than or felt sorry for.
Also, provide information, resources and support for a manager of a person with a disability. They may not know what to do because they’ve never managed someone with a disability before. In an ideal world, a manager would know to contact HR for a resource packet or a training. And it can’t just be doing a blanket “let’s get everyone trained for working with employees with a disability” because if you don’t use in the first 30 days, you’re going to forget it.
HOW CAN COMMUNICATORS RAISE THE CONVERSATION MORE MEANINGFULLY?
There’s a show on NBC called Super Store and there’s a character named Garrett that’s a gentleman in a wheelchair. In the second episode of the first season, they announce that corporate is coming to feature the store in the internal magazine. His first thought is: “Oh God, corporate is coming.” He spent the entire episode trying to dodge the photographer because he’s disabled and black and knows they’ll put him on the cover.
“RATHER THAN JUST DOING A PROFILE TO TICK A BOX, FIND THE REASON THEY’RE IN THAT ROLE. IT’S PART OF THE STORY BUT IT’S NOT THE LEAD – WE ALL USE A SUPERPOWER. IDENTIFY IT AND LEAD WITH THAT.
I like to use the example of FDR. When you ask people what he did, they’ll call out “World War II” or this or that about his presidency. “Oh, he also had polio.” It’s rarely the first thing that someone leads with. That’s what I think anyone with a disability would want.
We don’t want that to be the lead. Move beyond checking boxes for an affinity. The easiest thing is to lead with that dimension. Sometimes when you have any kind of thing about you that’s different, you don’t want it to be highlighted, it inhibits.
WHAT CAN COMMUNICATORS AND HR DO TO ELEVATE INCLUSION AND EQUITY?
Diversity just is. Inclusion is what we’re trying to work towards. At a minimum, what’s table stakes, is giving people an opportunity to celebrate or showcase cultural aspects they’re proud of. There’s a balance of doing that and opening it up to everyone, however. Not everyone else is a spectator.
Let’s take Black History Month, why not have showings once a week, where you watch a movie and discuss it. Someone who’s Black may have a perspective they want to share, but it’s also something where everyone can participate. Maybe it’s a cooking class so you can learn about things about the food and culture. Previously, there was a tendency to give a deference to “share your culture with us” versus seeking to learn and grow on your own.
"Move beyond inclusivity and beyond the diversity quotients and think: how has someone’s background shaped who they are?
I’m Indian-American and it has really shaped my work ethic. I have a different deference to leadership. There are cultural nuances that people bring to the table and that translate to their style. Going full circle, people with a disability may not be able to network in the same way, but someone from a different cultural background may not accustomed to workplace culture expectations either. I coached someone once and he wasn’t being assertive enough or speaking up enough in meetings, there’s a cultural element in there. That shouldn’t be overlooked or punished.
For equity, we need to examine what behaviors are rewarded and what qualities are seen as competencies. That’s the hard work. Doing trainings and holding celebrations, that’s important too, but the real work is how are you really looking at your culture and what it values, recognizes and rewards.
IF YOU COULD SAY ONE THING TO LEADERS, WHAT ADVICE WOULD YOU GIVE?
It’s one person at a time and one step at a time. It’s about making that difference: one person at a time. When I was at McKesson, my manager really showed up for me throughout my experience.
One of things he did, I’ll never forget. We had a team offsite at a resort and, after the day of activities, we had an evening of skee-ball, pinball and basketball. I remember prior to this offsite, he shared the schedule with me and left it as an option. “I don’t really know if it’s Kamna-friendly, I’ll let you decide if you want to stay and hang out. If you prefer to leave, that’s ok too.”
Everything, from just calling it “Kamna-friendly” to giving me the choice, made such a huge difference for me. If every manager, every leader, could just take a moment to have that kind of sensitivity. To not make it a big deal. To let your people know they can make that choice for themselves is huge and you will breed loyalty.
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