The Swimming Pool Incident

It was a hot holiday weekend in Arkansas and my twelve year old daughter and I went to a community swimming pool. The pool was very crowded – mostly with white children and two black children. I laid down to suntan and to possibly doze off, which I know is not a smart thing to do as a parent. But I rationalized that my daughter is a strong swimmer and there were plenty of children and parents in and near the pool.

As I was dozing, I heard a man yell, “Why don’t you morons get out of the pool?” It took me a few minutes to react as I tried to determine if that was a dream or something that had happened in the pool area. I sat up on my lawn chair and noticed that the black children were nowhere in sight. I motioned for my daughter to come over. I asked her what had happened and she repeated what the man had said – she said he directed the comments at the black kids.

I have spent most of my adult life telling my children and associates at Walmart the importance of speaking up and speaking out when something isn’t right. Here was a moment that wasn’t right and my daughter had witnessed it. Would I do what I had always taught her was the right thing to do? How would I do it? I mulled over different approaches and decided that I would approach the man on a weekday when the pool wasn’t so crowded.

That Monday, I drove to the pool. The pool area was completely empty except for me and the man who oversees the pool. He was sitting behind a desk when I walked into the small attached cement building.

I introduced myself and said that I wanted to talk to him about something that happened on Saturday. I asked him, “Did you say ‘Why don’t you morons get out of the pool?’” He angrily stood up and demanded, “Are you calling me a racist?” I thought about the fact that no one knew where I was at that moment and that the two of us were the only ones in an isolated building. I paused for a few seconds to think about how to respond to his question. I thought to myself, “I am in this conversation deep – there’s no turning back.”

I replied, “I’m not calling you a racist, but I’m concerned about how your comment made the black children and all the children in the pool feel on Saturday.” He sat back down and we proceeded to have a conversation. He assured me that he calls many people morons – he uses the term for women, Hispanics, and others. I talked with him about the impact of calling people morons. At the end of our discussion, I felt that the two of us had very different viewpoints.

Two weeks after our conversation, my daughter and I returned to the pool. As we were walking into the pool area, he started pointing at me. He said, “You! I know who you are and what you do for a living.” I’m still not sure how he knew I was responsible for diversity and inclusion at Walmart. He got closer to me and leaned into my ear and said, “Thank you for having that conversation with me.”

My daughter and I did not return to that pool until four years later. As we walked into the pool area, he recognized me and said, “You! I remember you and I remember our conversation.” I got closer to him and leaned into his ear and said, “You and I will always be connected because of that conversation.”

This experience taught me the value of speaking up and speaking out. Often, we are caught off guard when we hear comments or jokes that are offensive and inappropriate. Sometimes we don’t know how to handle the situation. The best suggestion I ever heard is to simply say “Ouch.” This puts a pause in the conversation because most people know what ouch means.

I am retiring in a few weeks and I have thoroughly enjoyed my past 12 years with Walmart because at Walmart we are open and welcome to everyone. Everyone.

We open our doors every day around the world to all customers – and we welcome them. We provide access and affordability for the daily necessities of living.

Respect for the individual has been – and always will be – a core fundamental belief at Walmart.

We expect that all associates and all customers will be treated respectfully regardless of race, gender, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, nationality, religion, disability, sexual orientation, gender identity, and gender expression.

We don’t discriminate and we don’t pass judgment.

Over the past decade, there has been a natural evolution in the diversity arena. Now most companies are very focused on inclusion. Sometimes the words diversity and inclusion are used interchangeably—but they have different meanings.

Diversity is about our differences. Diversity is typically captured in metrics.

Inclusion is about environment. Inclusion requires action—specific actions help create an inclusive environment.

An analogy to help demonstrate the difference between the words diversity and inclusion is thinking about going to a dance. Diversity is being invited to the dance. Inclusion is actually being out on the dance floor dancing.

Diversity is about counting heads. Inclusion is about making every head count.

There are several inclusive leadership behaviors that each of us can demonstrate that will help our environment become even more inclusive:

1. Speak up/Speak out: If something isn’t right, say something and do something about it. Don’t be a bystander. Be a person of action who corrects inappropriate situations.

2. Never let anyone sit alone: Notice those who aren’t sitting with anyone and either join them or ask them to join you. Do this in meetings, at lunch, at conferences, etc.

3. Ask quiet associates their opinion: Pay attention to who is and is not talking and ask quiet associates for their opinions. Oftentimes, they are strong observers, planners and thinkers and they have the best business solution.

4. Use inclusive language: Words have power. Your words indicate your level of inclusiveness. Use words like loved ones, significant others or partner rather than spouse. There are many religions represented in each country as well as individuals who are agnostic or atheist. “Happy Holidays” is an inclusive phrase.

5. Develop relationships with those that are different than you: Personal relationships have the ability to change our perceptions. Purposefully develop strong relationships with people who are different than you. Invite them to your home.

6. Be a continual learner: Read, visit museums, watch movies, and travel to learn about other people and cultures. Be a student of diversity and inclusion. Understand historical and current events and the linkage to inclusion.

Our collective diversity and inclusion journey is a series of phases – a continuum. We increase our awareness through relationships and education. We move from awareness to a low level of inclusion called tolerance. When people say they “tolerate” diversity it sounds like they are doing what is minimally required. Acceptance is a pivotal stage because it typically accelerates a person’s movement through the continuum.

Celebrating differences means that there is an understanding that different opinions, experiences and backgrounds will help us arrive at a better business solution. Leveraging differences is a higher level of focus on diversity and inclusion – using our differences to create competitive advantage.

The final stage before becoming an inclusive leader is being an advocate, a champion for diversity and inclusion. An advocate and champion is someone who regularly talks about diversity and inclusion and asks others what they are doing to leverage differences and to create an inclusive environment. Inclusion drives innovation because all team members feel valued, respected, and heard.

My challenge to each of you is to be a champion for diversity and inclusion. Be loud and proud. Be the torchbearer for what is right.