When Eefje Tjong Joe Wai was working as a physiotherapist at Ajax at the start of her career, she met a boy on one of the youth teams named Frans Sabajo. 'Not thinking, I asked him what kind of strange name he had, such a Dutch first name with his last name. The eight-year-old looked at me and said, 'I don't know, Eefje Tjong Joe Wai.''
That incident has stayed with her. 'It reminds me that sometimes you get so stuck in your own way of thinking that you don't realise how much in common you may have with the person in front of you.' However strange her last name may sound to some, it's quite normal for Eefje. 'I come from a diverse background, but it's mainly something others see.
How can you retain the individuality of your employees? How can companies use diversity to their advantage rather than seeing it as the elephant in the room? With these questions at the front of her mind, Eefje joined NautaDutilh in March 2020. As a Senior Human Resources Business Partner, she deals with employee inflow, advancement and outflow, in particular organisational and leadership development. The issue she is most passionate about, however, is inclusion and diversity. Eefje believes strongly in 'facilitating a culture in which everyone can make a valuable contribution, based on their talents and perspective, and feels free to be themselves'.
This is important to ensure employee self-esteem and can also help companies achieve a better bottom line, as Eefje explains. She prefers not to view diversity as something that must yield results but rather as a way of motivating people and getting them moving. 'By showing different sides, there is a greater chance of reaching a better solution. There is really a lot to gain. And that doesn't mean you have to discuss ideas endlessly.’
How do you make the best possible use of all perspectives within an organisation? According to Eefje, it's important that employees aren't afraid to speak their minds, for better or for worse. 'It may sound vague, but you have to believe that your ideas matter. That you won't be judged if you say or contribute something that goes against the prevailing norm.'
It is completely psychologically understandable to conform in order to find one's place within a group. Moreover, this process takes place without us even realising it. Eefje noticed this herself when she started this new job. 'You quickly use the same jargon and speak up less in meetings if you notice that your opinion or viewpoint differs too much, even though a fresh look can provide a different perspective on things. These are opportunities for companies, which they can use to improve in various areas: position in society, productivity, sales, customer loyalty, absenteeism and engagement.'
According to Eefje, managers play an important role in this regard. 'Certainly in a hierarchical organisation, managers largely determine the norm, what you will or will not accept, and to what extent do you address each other's behaviour. But many managers are insufficiently aware of the role they play.'
Awareness appears to be key to a good inclusion and diversity policy. After all, what is normal for you may require someone else to adapt. As examples, Eefje cites the annual ski trip and the Thursday drinks after work. 'I personally believe you shouldn't stop these types of activities for fear that people who don't participate for whatsoever reason will feel excluded. I believe, however, that it's important to ensure that those who cannot or don't want to participate are not disadvantaged in their careers. If you don't join in, it shouldn't mean that you don't feel part of the team or company or that you're not asked to join certain committees. Make sure there are plenty of other possibilities for employees to connect and form part of the bigger picture.’
Eefje has noticed that raising such issues sometimes touches a sensitive chord. 'This is only logical because it means change for the majority, who do not automatically benefit from it and may even have to give up some of their advantages.' According to Eefje, it is very important that the old guard and new employees work together to find solutions. 'This is a process in which listening to one another and understanding the other's point of view are crucial. The old guard must give new arrivals space to grow, while newcomers must accept the presence of the establishment. Try to see where the other one is coming from, without judging.'
'That's why this connection is so important. You start the dialogue and put yourself in someone else's shoes.'
In the end, if you leave change only to the group that is different, it will rarely happen. 'That's why this connection is so important. You start the dialogue and put yourself in someone else's shoes. Otherwise, you only pay lip service to diversity, squeezing it into a straitjacket, with a great risk of talent walking out the back door.'
A practical solution
At NautaDutilh, Eefje has noticed that the subject of diversity is alive and well in the boardroom. 'When I applied, I spoke with the members of the board; they are all convinced that diversity is a subject that we, as a firm, should address in more concrete terms.'
'Making sure that people feel seen and are given room and ownership to develop their talents.'
She has noticed that this practical approach is very common in the legal profession. 'It is a profession that is very focused on content, one that is rewarding and ensures a high position. But when firms tend to focus on these aspects, you'll notice that the things around it seem to be considered less important. She mentions 'leadership skills, ensuring conditions for team members to perform optimally, making sure that people feel seen and are given room and ownership to develop their talents.'
When the board of NautaDutilh asked her how to better promote inclusion and diversity, Eefje did not have a clear answer. 'It's not a step-by-step plan you can walk through and simply tick the boxes. Inclusion and diversity are part of our culture and require constant attention. We all have to work on it because, ultimately, the goal is to make an organisation more than the sum of its parts.’
What matters is that everyone's contribution is valued. 'You can see that we can improve our organisation in the functional area as well.' Eefje sees that much of the knowledge and experience present within the firm is not being fully utilised. 'For example, the legal practice groups should be managed more business-wise, with staff members forming part of the management team. By adding other voices, you get much more out of the potential already present within the organisation.'
She herself recalls a manager at a previous employer. 'He really talked to you if you didn't actively share your ideas or bring your point of view to the table. If you had a different opinion, he wanted you to share it. His idea was that he paid us 100 per cent and expected to also get 100 per cent of our creativity and ideas in return.'
Dare to fail
However, before companies can require such involvement and full commitment from their employees, it's important to consciously work on creating a culture in which there is room for and recognition of different views. 'You don't want inclusion and diversity to exist only on paper. If you decide that this is an important issue and want to bring about change, you can start by reflecting on your own behaviour and unconscious biases. Because making a decision is one thing, but acting in accordance with that decision is another thing altogether.'
According to Eefje, this is an important task for leaders. 'You want to create a culture in which people feel involved and know that there is room to make their voices heard. Sometimes I see managers involve others in decision-making, but then do nothing with their input. Of course, you don't have to take over everything, but it's important to show that employees are being listened to and to explain how you arrive at a decision. In this way, you create transparency and trust, which are necessary to continue sharing different insights.'
This requires a different, more open attitude from managers. 'And that can be stressful. Because it's new, there's a great chance you will fail. And if there's one thing lawyers want to avoid, it's failure.' She understands this position when it comes to the substance of their work. 'But if you change your behaviour, you have to accept that things will sometimes not go according to plan. You have to see it as a chance for growth and new opportunities.'
'But as a manager, admitting that you didn't do something properly is a leadership skill, in my opinion.'
'In the courtroom, failure can have major consequences for the client', she continues. 'But as a manager, admitting that you didn't do something properly is a leadership skill, in my opinion. These are two very different things.'
Building a more inclusive culture takes time and is a gradual process, although for Eefje personally, the steps taken are sometimes too small. 'Of course change happens slowly, because we want to bring people on board. Sometimes I want to go too fast and sometimes we're held back by discomfort, we all have to go through that.’
Discomfort, according to Eefje, is something companies should embrace much more. 'If you don't feel uncomfortable in this type of situation, you're doing something wrong.' Discomfort drives change. 'If you just walk around the office nodding yes and high-fiving, you're not making anyone's ideas better.'
So embrace discomfort, she advises. 'Don't think things don't exist as long as you don't talk about them. If people can speak openly about what they find difficult or how they view things, you know what you can work on together.'
Eefje herself regularly experiences discomfort in her role. 'I am constantly questioning the prevailing norm, to see if there's a better way. While lawyers prefer to solve problems, I constantly create new obstacles,' she laughs.
She is able to accept this discomfort because she knows it serves a greater purpose. 'The questions I ask are in line with the values I adhere to personally. If you know what you stand for, it's easier to stand up for something.'
Eefje learned this lesson at university. As a teetotaler, she was firmly in the minority. 'In the beginning it was difficult at my student union, but I knew what I stood for. I really just don't like drinking.' Because she was so clear about where she stood, she noticed that it was easier for others to accept her position. 'I would like this to be the case in organisations, too. For people to stand up for who they are and for those around them to accept that. To help individuals feel confident enough to express themselves freely within the organisation, without being judged for doing so.’
Really listening to each other is the first step towards achieving inclusion and diversity. 'Start by talking to each other. When you feel accepted and that your views are welcome, you don't have to struggle as much as you otherwise would. In the end, I think inclusion and diversity make better lawyers and professionals. But in order to achieve success in this area, you have to have the guts and the courage to fail.'
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