Ralph Brandt and Rich Brandt, Managing Partners, RDR GroupRalph Brandt and Rich Brandt, Managing Partners
Even with continuing disruptions caused by the pandemic in the U.S, the impact of #justiceforgeorgefloyd still resonates loudly. This is especially true in the business world where diversity and inclusion outranked COVID as a main concern. A recent HR Policy Association survey representing CHROs from some of the largest employers indicated that nearly 82 percent cited DEI as their top priority, followed by cultural transformation in the COVID work environment. In digging deeper, it was found that the change in prioritization was influenced by the death of George Floyd. Ever since this incident, nearly 85 percent of respondents have expanded inclusion activities, increased C-suite involvement in them, and started or enhanced unconscious bias training. It seems as if issues of racial injustice have triggered a desire to do something more than just talk about diversity.

Slowly but surely, companies are coming to understand that to promote DEI, they have to go beyond just hiring a diverse workforce – they have to initiate interactions that help employees feel they are included and truly understood beyond what meets the eye. There’s growing interest in learning what can actually be done to create connection and address bias with concrete behaviors that can be measured empirically.

To this end, Illinois-based RDR Group provides virtual and in-person training that focuses on what they call “inclusive practices” because, in their opinion – inclusion has to go beyond knowing to doing – and they have partnered with a health system and a major university to prove it. For over 20 years, the company has worked with multiple Fortune 500 companies, major healthcare organizations, universities, and government agencies by helping them put specific activities in place that are now proven to create connections.

In a conversation with the editorial team at Manage HR, Ralph Brandt and Rich Brandt, the Founders and Managing Partners of RDR Group, speak about their background, the significant challenges clients face, and how RDR Group addresses them.

Tell us a little bit about yourselves and your perspective on diversity and inclusion.

Ralph: Well, Rich and I are a bit of an anomaly in the diversity space because we are two older white guys that happen to be twins. Twins can be very insular growing up where everything and everyone is seen as “different,” but this allows us to play a unique role because our lives are a story of learning to include and change bias. By developing friendships over time with those of various ethnic groups, religious traditions, sexual orientations, and age groups -we became more inclusive and are convinced this is the key to creating connection. We also feel strongly that white men need to actively address issues of equity by acting inclusively. This is why we shifted our focus to “inclusive practices” and studied their impact on changing bias.

With help from Yale University and Yale New Haven Health, we tested the impact of behavioral training coupled with eight weeks of follow-up activities. The hospital provided the participants, we provided the program, and the university conducted the research. Participants had to pick an opposite race partner after learning about inclusion and commit to weekly interactions with the support of discussion guides. The research team found that the training coupled with inclusive practices led to increased comfortability, resulting in greater inclusion among participants. This sense of connection is what tends to foster healthy brain chemistry resulting in happier, more productive, more innovative individuals – and, of course, better business outcomes. The training we provide at RDR Group is designed to educate clients on these specific behaviors and implement follow-up practices that foster inclusion, empowerment and success.

What kind of new things do you see emerging in the HR space regarding diversity and inclusion?

Rich: We see many people looking for a more prescriptive approach - who want to know what they can do. Remarkably, a large percentage of those supporting the Black Lives Matter protests were non-blacks this time around, and that is significant. To be sure, people of color are leading the charge, but others are joining the effort and becoming energized too. Even on a corporate level, many organizations are making bold announcements and devoting increased resources to racial equality. From a training perspective, we have seen genuine interest from individuals seeking a deeper understanding and response to non-inclusive actions that are often unconscious. We look at five of them – along with corresponding competencies to increase inclusion. For example, one of the exclusionary behaviors we call “flocking” – where people gravitate toward others like themselves. This divides people and fosters bias, so we encourage “networking” with those who are different. Then we reinforce the learning with follow-up activities they can pursue with a connecting partner.

You can be conservative and pro-diversity, or you can be liberal and pro-diversity because regardless of how we vote, we have to include to succeed

What are the challenges that your clients are facing while implementing diversity and inclusion practices in their organization?

Ralph: Well, there’s the pandemic – which means most everything has to be done virtually (even the follow-up activities), and clients are busy with a lot of things right now.

This means diversity and inclusion can seem like something extra when they are already maxed out. For this reason, we try to make the training and the practices realistic. We’re doing the virtual sessions in two 90-minute modules, and if participants choose to work with a “connecting partner,” it’s a weekly commitment of only 20-minutes for six weeks. Each week they get a discussion guide that helps create connection, and people are saying it is transformative. They are not only being more inclusive but helping each other, brainstorming together, and doing their jobs more efficiently – despite COVID and having so much to do.

Rich: I also think there’s a tendency for diversity and inclusion to become politicized and polarizing when it is not framed properly. Everyone feels they are being forced to take sides or are afraid of saying the wrong thing. This is where the “practices” help because they are safe and guided discussions where real understanding occurs between people who see these are not political issues but fundamental human rights issues – and business issues. You can be conservative and pro-diversity, or you can be liberal and pro-diversity because regardless of how we vote, we have to include to succeed. For this reason, our course is called Connecting with Others because everyone understands the importance of connecting better with those we work with and those we serve.

How does the RDR Group provide diversity and inclusion practices that achieve measurable results in a short time?

Ralph: It’s like getting in shape, right? We can talk about it, or we can do it. In our approach, we do both. We outline five non-inclusive behaviors along with five inclusive practices – then we put participants to work doing the practices the very next day. They select someone as a partner who is different from them (in age, race, gender, sexual orientation, etc.), and each week we send reminders and discussion templates so they can practice what they learned while interacting together for six weeks. The Yale research suggests that this will produce measurable change around issues of equity, bias, and connection. Previous studies have indicated that when people perceive someone as “different,” it tends to increase stress levels, but if they develop familiarity with those same people – it creates comfortability with them and others like them. So, bias toward other races, age groups, religions, or sexual orientations tends to change when we get to know people from these groups. At the same time, it creates more substantial connections with co-workers and customers from various backgrounds, as well as increased engagement, loyalty, and success.

What does the future look like for RDR Group?

Rich: Well, we are as busy as we have ever been in 20 years, and I think just like the 10,000-hour theory suggests, our work has reached new levels and truly coalesced.

We anticipate publishing our findings and continuing to serve clients who are interested in pointing to something tangible that they are doing to include. For us, it’s about making a difference, and hundreds of people are now sharing with us how these inclusive interactions have been life-changing for them, forming new relationships and new habits that will become an ongoing part of how they do business.

Ralph: I think the research project with Yale has given us immense opportunities. We are now expanding the study and our team as we continue to challenge organizations to go beyond mere discussions about inclusion to acting on it.