Sandi Wassmer is the CEO of enei, a UK-based non-profit that helps employers build diverse teams and cultures. She shares why listening and supporting people individually is key to an inclusive culture.
Understanding the difference between equity and equality is, Sandi Wassmer believes, a stumbling block for many employers.
“Lots of people are talking about equity right now and replacing that for equality, but both are really important,” she argues. “Equality, in this instance, means equality of opportunity, ensuring everybody can thrive in the workplace. Equity is how you make that happen through reasonable adjustments or accommodations.”
Organisations need to see people as individual human beings and that the needs of one person with a protected characteristic may not be the same as others with the same.
Wassmer, who lost her sight in 2008, knows this is the case from her own experience. “I don’t read Braille, so if equity meant reasonable adjustment was giving me a heap of things in Braille, that wouldn’t be equity for me,” she explains.
“You can have a broad understanding of different groups or characteristics, but you’ve just got to listen and understand the diverse needs of individuals.
“People make it complicated because they want to attach criteria to characteristics or to generalise. Perhaps they think that makes things easier or quicker, but no one size fits all. Making equity happen requires so much work. You’ve got to listen to the individual and ask, ‘what’s going to work best for you?’”
Fear of getting DE&I wrong
Wassmer is CEO of enei (The Employers Network for Equality & Inclusion), one of the largest for workplace inclusion. She is driven by the desire to help people feel involved and included professionally, personally, spiritually, and emotionally.
“I’m quite a hippy,” she admits with a smile. “But I find it so sad when people aren’t coming together, are polarised and not living in harmony. So, that’s my absolute drive, just wanting the world to be a better place.”
Like many, Wassmer is frustrated by the fact that, despite enormous social change over the past 50 years, improvements in the workplace have not come fast enough. She points to the Equality Act of 2010, which, although “a good piece of legislation”, had proved challenging for organisations through misunderstanding. In particular, there was an emphasis on tackling discrimination, which then became an HR issue rather than a culture issue.
“People don’t know where to start,” she says. “There’s a lot of fear, particularly around the whole woke agenda, being cancelled, political with a small ‘p’ and much anger in the system – people saying, ‘my rights are more important than yours.’ So, people come to us at enei with fear. They want change to happen but are scared to touch it.
“At enei, we want to create a safe space for chief executives to say, ‘here are the challenges; I’m worried about getting it wrong, about offending someone.’ People are even afraid to have that conversation because they feel they’ll be judged.
“Our view at enei is that if you have an open heart and mind and want to get on with this work, we’ll take you wherever you’re starting from because you must start somewhere.
Sense of belonging
Psychological safety is an important part of an organisation’s culture. People need to feel they are part of a culture and with others they can identify with at all levels.
Wassmer explains: “If you are dictated to and told what to do, you’re not necessarily going to feel psychologically safe. But, if you are part of the decisions that shape your and the organisation’s work, you will feel a sense of belonging. We’re talking about a culture that needs to be aligned to your values, with behaviours associated with those values and ensuring they’re lived.”
After becoming blind, she experienced psychological and practical challenges, which affected her mental health. “I lost my sense of who I was,” she reveals. “One day, I was just regular Sandi, and the next day I was blind Sandi, and those two people were such worlds apart.”
At the time, she was the managing director of her digital agency, where her husband also worked. Wassmer could delegate projects to him and the rest of the team while she took time to concentrate on her mental health and work out what she needed to do differently. In this, she was supported by Action for Blind People, now part of the RNIB. Employers need to be aware of the help available from the various charities that support different disabilities. It’s not enough to ask people what they need because they may not know what’s available.
Vulnerability is a strength
Dispiritingly, there was an issue with a potential client who was less than understanding. She recalls: “We went to a pitch for a project that my husband was leading on the design work. It was pretty much in the bag. We did a fantastic pitch but never heard from the client again. Through word of mouth, I heard that the client had said, ‘why would I let a blind person design my website?’ I think that level of ignorance is everywhere.
“People do generally treat me well. But you’re not going to meet many people like me – only 27% of working-age blind or partially sighted people are in work, compared to 75% of the general population. I also have the most severe form of ADHD. So, what I find challenging in the workplace may not be what other people find challenging. I think of my ADHD as a superpower; I work extremely fast and focus quickly, so it isn’t a negative – it’s who I am.”
Wassmer has found that her vulnerability has strengthened her bond with her team and empowered her as a leader. Vulnerability meant being open and honest about her challenges.
“It’s incredible how that builds trust,” she reveals. “They trust me to come and say honest things. Our culture is very open, nurturing and supportive. Wellbeing is one of the most important things to us.”
While adapting to her changed circumstances, Wassmer got involved with the Government’s e-accessibility forum and drew up its e-accessibility action plan. She wrote a blog for Action for Blind People and joined their board. Keen to make websites accessible to all, Wassmer also worked with the World Wide Web Consortium’s accessibility initiative.
“I moved very quickly from my understanding of what access and accessibility were into inclusion and inclusive design,” she says. “So, accessibility is giving someone access to something that already exists, and inclusive design is about creating something that’s inclusive for all.”
Wassmer continued running her digital agency until 2014 when she moved to the charitable sector full-time. Sandi held two positions at Jewish Care; four years running digital services, supporting older and disabled people in using technology and two years as head of transformation and design before moving to her current role at enei as the UK’s only blind female CEO.
On joining, she found the company faced financial difficulties and is justifiably proud of being able to put it back on a more stable footing. Initially, enei was set up to help members and customers comply with the Equality Act. It has since developed into supporting organisations throughout their DE&I journey, from recruitment and retention to career progression and creating an inclusive culture.
“We’ve made changes to our infrastructure in terms of how we support our members better, how we work with strategic partners and our team of associates,” she adds. “We’ve made sure that our online resources and events look at moving from compliance with the Equality Act to cultural change and how we support organisations to ensure that DE&I is embedded at every stage of the employee experience.”
Finally, Wassmer emphasises the need for leaders to change their perspective and see people for who they are to be truly inclusive and to listen to them because “the most important quality of a leader is empathy.”