How Bloom Founder Avery Francis Builds Inclusive Workplaces
By Pauleanna Reid
Thanks in part to the global stage of social media, conversations on race, identity and politics are more amplified today than ever before. Among the slew of other race-based tragedies to make headlines in recent years, the George Floyd protests of 2020 had casual Instagram users and big brands alike making statements, scouring the web for resources, and posting black squares in solidarity. While the intentions from content creators, business leaders and CEOs to “listen and learn” were abundantly clear, the pathway to effective and authentic allyship was glaringly less so. Enter, Avery Francis.
A veteran HR professional turned industry thought-leader and entrepreneur, Francis founded Bloom to fill the gaps between how we talk about DEI and how it is actually implemented in creating healthy workplaces. Founded in 2018, the Black-owned HR and DEI design consultancy has a simple north star: work should work for everyone. Through an education-first approach, Bloom partners with some of the world’s best companies to build successful teams by evaluating and updating outdated HR policies, building new and inclusive recruiting and hiring infrastructure, and coaching managers and senior leaders on sound DEI practices.
For Francis, who spent over a decade as an HR and recruiting leader in the Toronto tech space, DEI is much more than a buzzword. It was a calling forged from necessity. “It just came from a collection of not-so-great experiences,” she says. “Being fired on numerous occasions, not being treated well and respected within the roles that I held and having those experiences really kind of influence and shake my self-esteem.” After learning of similar experiences from other Black and racialized women who too felt unseen and unsupported in their professional lives, Francis realized that “work doesn’t seem to be working for a lot of folks.”
Her own tipping point came when she was swiftly fired from a corporate HR position after having spoken up about workplace-related prejudice and discrimination. Despite her seasoned expertise and thousands of successful hires for world-renowned organizations under her belt, Francis’ complaints went unacknowledged. “As an HR [practitioner], it’s really hard because of the nature of your role,” says Francis. “The expectation is that you have a very high degree and capability to keep things confidential and that you won’t cause too much noise…It’s very irregular to see HR folks front and center talking about their experiences, and I think that as I started to do that, more people started to do it in the space [as well].”
Francis’ termination as well as other traumatic experiences (including an office assault) spurred her on to become more vocal about the deficiencies in workplace culture. After pivoting to entrepreneurship, it became even easier for her to speak openly about her own history and opportunities for change in the industry. Using her consultancy and personal social media platforms as a resource hub for DEI education, Francis has become a trusted authority on how CEOs, managers, recruiters and employees can move beyond theory to real-world application of diversity, equity and inclusion practices.
Always in the spirit of proper education, Francis shared with me five core barriers to effective DEI strategy commonly faced by business leaders:
1. Rigid beliefs
All leaders are human, and human beings have a tendency to identify very strongly with their beliefs – especially those that they’ve held for a very long time. According to Francis, beliefs rooted in where a person was raised, how they were socialized, or specific parts of their identity (such as religion) can be a challenge for DEI practitioners to navigate around.
2. Lack of experience
Someone might have all the good intentions in the world, but a lack of experience having discourse with different kinds of people will often be an obstacle. Francis explains, “as we know, the majority of people that are in leadership roles identify as white cishet men, and those folks just simply do not have some of the experiences that a Black woman or a Black queer woman [for example] may have outside of the workplace. That can definitely be a disconnect.”
It’s important to acknowledge that nothing happens in a vacuum. While many of us may strive to keep our personal and professional lives separate, that can be especially difficult as a person of color or member of a marginalized group during times of civil unrest. “There are a lot of external elements and situations that take place that influence how people are feeling at work,” says Francis. “So, for example, George Floyd’s murder was cause for a lot of transformation, evolution, conversations and dialogue within organizations that those organizations weren’t prepared for.”
When we view these events as “political,” we ignore the impact that they have on the people we work with. According to Francis, “I believe that this is human work. It’s not political, but it’s highly politicized.” For leaders, ignoring the human experience and humanness that people bring into the workplace on a day-to-day basis is a major barrier to strong DEI.
4. The narrative that DEI work is “uncomfortable”
Francis points out a common trope used to indoctrinate people entering DEI work – the idea that one must “get comfortable with being uncomfortable.” The downside here is that it focuses on the idea of growth as being difficult and unpleasant rather than possible, necessary and beneficial to all involved. Instead of getting comfortable with being uncomfortable, Francis offers, “no, get comfortable getting more comfortable as you practice, learn and invest in your own individual journey.”
This points out an important fact about DEI work. It’s not only something leaders “should” do, but rather they should want to do it as part of their own self work and personal development.
5. Inadequate resources
Oftentimes, leaders aren’t willing to invest in actual specialists – like Francis and the award-winning team of facilitators at Bloom – to do this work. Instead, they rely on the convenient (often unpaid) extra labor of minority or marginalized community-identified individuals to plug a DEI hole in their organizations. These employees are often expected to lead initiatives or feel their own sense of responsibility to get involved. According to Francis, this is unfair and impractical.
For one, while employees of color have very real and valid life experiences to draw from, that isn’t the same as a company investing in specific structures, systems and educators who are trained to help reduce potential harm from various systems of oppression. “What happens is it causes a ripple effect of additional kind of challenges within the organization because these people aren’t practitioners or specialists in the field,” says Francis. “They don’t understand the full impact of the nuance and the complexity of this work, especially as you navigate it within the workplace.”
Additionally, Francis urges leaders to consider the harmful effects of placing extra emotional labor on racialized employees. Not everyone wants to show up to work and be responsible for leading the team’s DEI efforts, especially on top of their established job duties. Even for those who feel called to contribute, that contribution should be voluntary and not demanded. Francis explains, “a lot of folks, by virtue of identifying as part of a marginalized community, feel very inspired and connected to the work and feel, I would say, a responsibility to push the work forward. But ultimately, if it’s not a part of your role description [and] this isn’t something that they hired you for, I don’t think this is something people should have to or be expected to take on.”
When leaders neglect to allocate resources to actual DEI efforts, it creates strain on the workers and may ultimately cause more harm than good.
Doing the work that works
At the heart of Francis’ work is an invitation to education, but key to the process is an actual desire to do things differently than they’ve been done before. For this reason, Bloom assesses all potential client-partners for computability with their core company values: transparency, inclusion, growth, authenticity and anticipation.
“What we’re assessing for that [client screening process] is a willingness to adapt and evolve existing systems… and proven efforts that they’ve done in the past to build a more inclusive and affirming workplace for other folks. We’re also assessing their willingness to invest in the collective kind of learning for the team.”
While the consultancy aims to support as many organizations as possible, their main concern is simply to see positive change being made. To that end, Bloom provides a variety of online resources where people can go for ongoing learning about diversity and inclusion in hiring. These include the Bloom social media accounts, the Bloom Blog, and Bloom Academy. Built for HR managers, CEOs, people leaders, recruiters and employees (remote or in-office) who want to create an inclusive workplace experience for all, Bloom Academy is a one-of-a-kind curriculum that offers context-specific learning to help cut through the DEI noise.