Be More Podcast: Selling Out Ethically with Lily Zheng - Peakon, a Workday company

Lily Zheng, an organizational diversity and inclusion consultant, discusses how companies can build trust with employees and support psychological safety.

Be More is a weekly one-on-one podcast about how everyone can thrive in the new world of work. Hosted by Peakon’s Chief Evangelist, Patrick Cournoyer. This week: Lily Zheng, an organisational DEI consultant on how to navigate ambiguity, nuance and compromise in the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion industry.

2020 has been a period of great change, not least in the realm of diversity, equity, and inclusion. The murder of George Floyd by police in America led to a new wave of Black Lives Matter protests across the globe, and this time companies felt obliged to speak up. But according to Lily Zheng, an independent DEI consultant, it’s not enough to just apply a new coat of paint.

What’s missing when companies take new, progressive stances is an acknowledgement of their own pasts. What’s missing is a retrospective owning up to their mistakes.

As a consultant, Lily encourages companies to avoid hitting the reset button. Instead, she champions listening to employees’ prior issues, and finding resolutions. That approach is part of why Forbes recently named Lily as one of the top ten diversity and inclusion trailblazers you need to get familiar with.

At the same time Lily is reckoning with her own moral quandaries around the ethics of working with multinationals — the subject of her book, The Ethical Sellout. At a time when social politics and corporate politics are becoming ever more entwined, her approach is simple: be honest, and don’t be afraid of nuance.

If you’re looking to develop your understanding of diversity, equity, and inclusion, then check out the key takeaways, or read the transcript below.

Key takeaways

What companies get wrong when it comes to trust

The majority of organisations don’t think critically about trust; a huge problem when companies are facing a loss of employee faith. If leaders don’t ask the right questions, then you’ll never be able to diagnose what’s wrong.

For decades companies have been ignoring, discounting and silencing the voices of women, people of colour, and minority employees. By remaining silent on social issues and not allowing people to speak up, they have created an inherent distrust in leadership. To fix this, you need to understand how you lost trust, and then make amends for that.

Employees need psychological safety

Psychological safety is a group level belief that it is safe to share dissenting opinions and things that might be hard for people to hear. Lily is certain that when people lack this sense of safety, they don’t report and share feedback. Toxic cultures, retaliation, and hierarchies that aren’t agreed to all hurt this sense of safety.

To mend that, it’s not enough for companies to just wipe the slate clean. In fact, that action is not only impossible, but disrespectful. Instead, the people in charge need to go back and want to make things right and rebuild trust. They need to talk to employees and apologise. Companies need to pay people what they are worth and move forward with a firmer foundation, one centred on the well-being of their employees and customers.


"My focus isn’t on: how can we do things that feel good to us, or how can we do things that look flashy, but what does it actually mean to change systems?"

Lily Zheng

Is it possible to “sell out” ethically?

Lily’s recent book The Ethical Sellout explores the idea of compromising without giving up your sense of integrity. Going through a world that is often inherently oppressive, unequal, and problematic means making decisions we need to in order to survive, while not compromising our core internal beliefs. Lily speaks about how she wrote the book partially to answer her own questions as an activist who is now working with large corporations on diversity issues.

Tackling purity politics requires nuanced empathy

One of the threats any community faces, corporate or otherwise, is this: purity politics. It’s the belief that there’s only one way to be a part of a community, and is surprisingly common across the political spectrum. It derives from the thought that unless someone approaches what binds the community in the “correct” manner then they are deserving of ostracisation and harm.

Lily emphasises that understanding the nuances and complexities behind particular decisions is absolutely paramount in tackling purity politics.


Patrick Cournoyer: Lily Zheng was recently named by Forbes magazine as one of the top 10 diversity and inclusion trailblazers you need to get familiar with. This is 100% accurate. Lily is a powerful and thoughtful voice in the world particularly when it comes to diversity and inclusion. She has worked with Fortune 500 companies. She’s authored two books with her most recent focused on how we maintain our integrity during the age of compromise, and has been a driving influence on moving positive intentions to positive impact. I’ve had the pleasure of working with Lily and I’m continuously impressed with her perspective, her insights, and honest talk that is refreshing in challenging times. Lily, thank you for spending time with me today.

Lily: It’s so great to be here. Thank you for having me, Patrick.

Patrick: Perfect. Okay, we have a ton that we can talk about, but I think a good place to start is for you to share with us what inspired you to build a career and such a deep dedication to diversity and inclusion work.

Lily: This is a doozy of a question to start with, so I’ll try to do it justice in a short period of time. I think my driving passion for doing this work comes, very honestly, from my own burnout. I started doing grassroots activism. I started as an organiser. The work that I did in college, mostly, was to create grassroots change through protests, through teach-ins — that was the background that I came to this work with. And I burned myself out doing it. I spent a while doing that work, and eventually, I realised that I didn’t know what I was doing. I didn’t actually know how to affect change. I didn’t actually know if the work that I was doing was having an impact.

After one particular action; I got some news, we ended up blocking a bridge and getting arrested for it. You can Google it if you want. I realised that I had paid a pretty heavy price, and I didn’t really understand the impact that I was having on the world. From that happening to me, I really wanted to take a closer look at the work that I was doing and that prompted me to change my field of study, to look more closely into sociology, into the history of activism, and really dig deep into how it is that individuals and organisations can actually make enduring change in the world.

That question, that study, took me into this career, that took me into the role that I have today, where my focus isn’t just on, how can we do things that feel good to us, or how can we do things that look flashy, but what does it actually mean to change systems? What does it actually mean to change organisations? How can we measure that? How do we do that? How can we sustain that? How can we make sure that the folks driving this change don’t burn out? Those are questions that I answer in my day-to-day today because of my experiences as an activist — going through that as a young adult.

Patrick: Thank you for sharing that with us. That is obviously a meaningful launching point for an incredible career so far and so much work that you’re doing and really helping organisations with, as I said, taking these all good intentions, all positive intentions but moving that to positive impact and sustainable change at businesses. Let’s start out with the idea of trust. We’ve been talking a lot about trust and organisations have been really focused on trying to either maintain trusted relationships with their employees, or to rebuild relationships where they’ve lost trust.

There’s been a lot going on in the workplace over the past year. What do you see right now happening in organisations when it comes to the relationship of trust between the organisation and their employees?

Lily: Let me take a quick step back. I think the reason why trust is so important is because so many organisations actually don’t think critically about trust being a factor at all. Just the question you asked, Patrick, of what are the issues of trust, is already further than a lot of the folks who I work with ask. Where most companies are at — especially with their diversity, equity, and inclusion journeys — is they’re thinking about this work just as, “What can we do? What can we say? What are the actions we can take to make everyone happy, to make the situation right?” especially in the wake in the US of the murder of George Floyd.

Now, I think that question comes from a good place, but what most leaders are finding, especially the leaders that I’m working with, is that there’s actually no correct answer to what action can I take or what thing can I do to fix things because there is this underlying loss of trust that’s occurred. This is a huge problem because it means that leaders are not asking the right question. It means that folks aren’t actually trying to diagnose what’s wrong with the situation.

When you actually look into what’s happening within many companies in the US, but also elsewhere, companies have, for the last several years, oftentimes several decades, been ignoring, discounting, or in some cases, silencing the voices of their women, their people of colour, their minority employees. They’ve remained silent on social issues. They have not allowed people to speak up. They have ignored people who have spoken up. As a result, that’s created this culture of distrust when it comes to leadership, when it comes to companies speaking out on these social issues.

Now, enter 2020 and everything that’s happened this year, and suddenly, companies are realising that, “Oh, now the right approach to take is for us to be talking about these big issues. Now, we need to be releasing statements.” In the US we had dozens and dozens of companies release Black Lives Matter statements for the first time. When Black Lives Matter first kicked off in, I believe it was 2013 or so, companies were completely silent. It was a very different time at that point in time.

Companies are like, “Great. Now, we have to say these things,” but their employees are silent. They’re saying, “Look, you spent all this time demonstrating to us that you don’t care, that you don’t give a damn, that you’re not going to listen to us, so why would we trust [you]? Now that you’ve said this thing, now that you’re going forward with this, how would we trust that there’s any degree of goodwill behind this?” That’s the problem that most companies are facing today.

They’re reckoning with their history of silencing employees, of their history of not caring about these issues. They’re realising that the issue today isn’t just a PR issue, isn’t just a challenge of what to say or what to do, it’s, “How can we reckon with the harm that’s happening in the world and the harm that we have directly or indirectly caused ourselves as a company and the loss of trust that that’s resulted in?”

That’s big, right? That’s new, that’s challenging, and that’s something that a good deal of leaders don’t fully understand yet. That’s why I think when we were having this conversation before this podcast episode, we landed on the idea of trust as something that we wanted to explore, because so few leaders actually understand that that’s the key challenge today.

Patrick: How do you help organisations and specific leaders start to understand that? You’re right, maybe it’s just leaping too far forward to say, “Well, how do we fix this? How do we need to fix the trust issue?” The first step needs to be understanding it.

Lily: Right.

Patrick: How do you suggest and work with leaders and organisations on being able to just understand the current state?

Lily: I ask them a very clear question, which is, “How did you lose that trust, to begin with?” Some leaders say, “Oh, I don’t know what you’re talking about. We didn’t lose any trust.” I’m like, “Okay. We can talk to your employees and we’ll see what they think.” Always, always, any basic surveying will reveal that, in the past, some leader said something, in the past, the CEO misstepped on a big issue, in the past, the company silenced voices who tried to speak out. There’s always something. There’s always some reason that trust was lost. Some leaders say, “Okay, that’s water under the bridge. That was then, this is now,” but it’s not because employees remember. Employees talk to each other. Employees tell stories.

This breach of trust, this loss of trust becomes embedded into the culture of many organisations — especially among women, people of colour, and other minorities. To fix it, you need to understand how you lost it, and then, you need to make amends for that. Making amends, very broadly, just refers to making things right, but that can look like all sorts of things. That can look like apologies, that can look like accountability for the folks who did harm, that can look like working with the folks that were hurt to ensure that they get what they need going forward. It doesn’t necessarily matter what the solution looks like, as long as that harm is addressed and repaired. That work has to come before anything, and when I say anything, I mean anything.

You can’t do any work on diversity, equity, and inclusion if you’ve lost that trust. I guarantee nothing you do is going to work. I can give best practices for days, and say, “This is how you should word your statements. This is how you should create a strategy.” It doesn’t matter if your employees think that you’re doing it to hurt them. You need to fix that fundamental distrust before you can do any of this work.

Yes, that takes a while. That’s not something that leaders like to hear when they talk to me. They say, “Lily, I’m coming to you because we want you to fix our problem,” and I’m like, “Then, I’m telling you the answer. To fix your problem, you need to own up to all of the harm you did that got you into this mess, and then, we can start fixing your problem once we’ve repaired those relationships.”

Patrick: You mentioned that in a recent Harvard Business Review article, where one of the points that you were talking about — the topic of the article, as you know, is around employees feeling safe about reporting abuse and discrimination within their organisation. And one of the points that you talk about is demonstrating a commitment to accountability from the top of organisation, so senior leadership and organisations standing up and holding themselves accountable and being transparent about that accountability.

You talked a little bit about serving employees and just being able to hear the voice of employees and their opinions — how do you think organisations should approach this idea? Taking it one step further in talking about trust — employees feeling safe about truly talking about how they feel, and reporting on things, and being transparent about things that they may view in part of the organisation that maybe nobody else knows is going on.

Lily: Yes. This is a really interesting field of study. This gets us pretty deep into the idea of psychological safety. I’m going to touch on it briefly here, but you should absolutely check out the research done by Edmondson, 2002. That’s a very seminal piece of research put out, and there’s been a lot of work done on psychological safety published since then. But! Just a very brief overview: psychological safety is a group level belief that it is safe to share dissenting opinions, it is safe to share things that might be conflicting or hard for people to hear, and that people who do so are not going to be punished for sharing their views.

Now, psychological safety is the underpinning of any effective feedback in conflict resolution process within companies. This gets to what you were asking, Patrick, which is that if people don’t have this sense of psychological safety, they’re not going to feel comfortable reporting, they’re not going to feel comfortable sharing feedback, they’re not going to feel comfortable saying, “Hey, my manager said something really hurtful the other day,” because they’re just going to be scared.

Now, the things that hurt psychological safety are retaliation, are toxic cultures, are cultures where people aren’t listened to, are hierarchies that aren’t agreed to. All of these things depress psychological safety. When we talk about how it is we can actually create this environment where people can share their feedback, where people can share their opinions, where people can perhaps trust that leaders are going to take it well, you need to address all of these things.

When we talk to leaders, getting back to your first-first question, which is, “How can leaders actually step up and take accountability for things?” This is a phrase that I hear a lot. A lot of leaders go like, “Okay, it’s time for us to be accountable for our actions.” I’m like, “Great.” That’s not just something that you do going forward, that’s something you have to do retroactively. Because I guarantee you every leader that makes that promise, has not been accountable in the past.

The entire reason why leaders have to make that promise is because they haven’t been accountable in the past and they’re trying to change their actions. You can’t just wipe the slate clean. This is one of the big takeaways that I want folks to get from this conversation. You can’t just wipe the slate clean when you announce that you’re going forward with new work, whether that’s diversity and inclusion, whether that’s reducing sexual assault, whether that’s creating an equitable workplace, you can’t wipe the slate clean.

You have to go back and say, “We need to make things right. We need to rebuild trust. We need to talk to employees. We need to apologise. We need to, I don’t know, pay people what they’re worth. We need to help people that have been spurned by our conflict resolution system actually get some resolution to things.” That is all essential pre-work to doing any future-focused work.

Patrick: Along those lines, trust is the core of what we’ve been talking about for the first part of this conversation. Trust and integrity have been married together, forever… Or at least the concept of having a high level of trust is aligned with having a high level of integrity — hopefully! Maybe in a utopia world. I want to talk quickly about your book that you recently wrote, which is all about how people maintain integrity during these times. The title of the book is The Ethical Sellout, which I think is a very, maybe a provocative title.

Lily: That was the intention.


Patrick: Provocative in a thought-provoking way. First, let’s talk about what is an ethical sellout, or what is the concept? Let’s start there, and then, we’ll move on from there.

Lily: Sure. When we wrote the book, The Ethical Sellout, the idea we were exploring is, “Is it possible to compromise but maintain your sense of integrity while doing that?” The idea of The Ethical Sellout of selling out ethically, is this practice of going through life, going through a world that is often inherently oppressive, unequal, problematic, and making the decisions we need to in order to survive, while not compromising our core internal beliefs.

Now, this was such a big question going into the book, like, “Is that even possible? Is it even possible to compromise and to maintain our integrity? What is the role of compromise, especially when it comes to big things like racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, and the complicity of our organisations and companies in it?” Huge questions, right? Those are questions that we explored in the book.

To make it very clear to listeners, we very quickly realised that we couldn’t say that there was a person who could be an ethical sellout. We’re not here saying like, “These are the five steps you need to take to be an ethical sellout.” It was more an exploration of an idea. It was more an exploration of: how is it that we can deal, that we can tackle these big questions, to answer the challenges of existing in this world, of compromising when we need to — without losing our soul in the process.

Patrick: What inspired you to write this book now? I mean, obviously, the book, I’m assuming, was written before the pandemic because—

Lily: This book was written before COVID.

Patrick: —it takes a while.

Lily: This is such a funny question. I don’t think you can find a person in the world that could have predicted 2020. I’m not even going to try. In 2019, better times — several years ago it feels like — we wrote this book for a few reasons. My own personal reasons, I would be lying if I said one of them wasn’t guilt. I told you my own story. I was an activist, and now, what am I doing? I’m working for corporations on diversity issues.

In my head, I’m like, “Oh, look at me. I’m like the quintessential sellout. Here I was doing grassroots work, and now, I’m working with CEOs all day.” I wrote the book, partially, to answer my own questions, to say, “How is it that I can go into this field as someone with an activist background, as someone that is deeply connected to community, and retain my integrity in the process? How can I make sure that the work that I’m doing actually makes it to the people who need it and that I’m not just enabling harm, by accident, by working with these large corporations?” That was one reason.

Another reason why we wrote the book was, we found that this challenge was something that so many people were facing, especially people with strong beliefs about justice and equity. We found that, just like me, everyone in this space felt a lot of guilt going through their lives making these decisions because the systems of oppression that we all exist under — racism, sexism, all of the isms — force these tough choices onto us.

“Am I going to take this job that I hate, or risk not putting food on the table? Am I going to stay quiet when my manager says something harmful, or am I going to rock the boat and risk losing a promotion or losing my job even? Am I going to work for a company that I know is doing harmful things while this job market is so unstable and so messy, or am I going to stick to my values and take my chances looking elsewhere?”

These are very pressing questions. These are extremely relevant. They were relevant in 2019, and they’re even more relevant now as we’re in the midst of COVID. These compromises that we make, that we insert our identities into, are challenging, are really tough, and we just don’t talk about them. We really don’t talk about them.

As a society, we don’t really have much of a conversation on how it is that women, people of colour, minorities, especially, can find that balance between doing work that gives them purpose, that feeds their soul, that makes them feel like they’re having a positive impact and surviving, and feeding themselves; feeding their families; having a roof over their heads. We just don’t have that conversation. When we do, it’s in unproductive and harmful ways — that I’m happy to talk about — that get into harmful things like purity politics, for example.

Patrick: Let’s talk about that, purity politics, can you explain what that is?

Lily: Purity politics: it’s one way of talking about the belief that communities hold that there’s only one way to be part of that community. It’s surprisingly common. You actually see purity politics show up in communities on all sides of the political spectrum, from leftist communities; activists, organisers, to religious communities and everything in between. In short, it’s basically, “If you do this narrow set of behaviours, you are good. You’re one of us. You’re part of us. If you don’t do those things or you compromise them or you are outside of them, you are bad. You are part of the bad people. You’re an outsider. You don’t belong with us.”

It’s actually quite a few communities, and honestly, especially in this time of polarisation, those communities are only increasing and growing in number. You can see lots of that on the internet — [communities] that employ purity politics. It’s become, especially in the US, part and parcel of how people engage with each other. There’s this belief that if you don’t like the thing that I like, if you don’t talk about this thing the way that I talk about this thing, that not only are you not like me but that you are deserving of harm, that you don’t deserve anything good. It’s a real challenge.

Every single person in the book that we talked to talked about the challenge of existing in the world when their communities had purity politics. There was this one person who we talked to for the book, who said, “Look, I’m taking my child to church and I go to a Black church. It’s really good to have my child grow up among Black people like me, but there’s some really homophobic views happening in that church and so we ended up moving into a predominantly white church that was a lot better with queer and trans issues. Now, I’m certain that my child isn’t growing up with these homophobic beliefs, but I feel like I’ve compromised something crucial by not going to a Black church.”

These sorts of decisions are so common, but purity politics would approach that and say, “Oh, then, you’re not Black. You’re not a real Black person. You don’t belong in this community. I can’t believe you would take your child to a white church,” not understanding the nuance and complexity of these decisions. I can go on and on. I have dozens of these types of stories because everyone faces them.

Patrick: There’s a fairly bold statement with the book that really everyone sells out at some point.

Lily: Everyone sells out, yes.

Patrick: In some aspect of life, in some aspect of decision, and that is a bold claim, but in listening to you — again, in this 10-minute snippet about the book, and I know there’s so much more in the book — but this goes far beyond work environments and work decisions. These are challenges across life.

Lily: Right.

Patrick: The age of compromise is not slowing down. It’s actually probably increasing.

Lily: It is increasing because compromise, as we explore in the book, is not something that people do because they don’t have values. It’s something that people are forced to do when they live in a world that is inherently unequal and unjust. That’s something that we, time and time again, explore in the book through these stories. The compromises that people make were always forced — something always forced their hand.

This is an example that we saw across all sorts of differences. We saw it with disability. One participant was a disability rights advocate, disability justice advocate, if you will, and was really proud of her identity, and then, a new treatment came out that would reverse the progression of her disability and give her ability back. She said, “Yes.” She said, “You know what, I have to do it because this is going to allow me to achieve my dream of actually going to college and getting a degree and pursuing my life goals.”

In fact, her community was very supportive, but she was the person that was really hard on herself. She was the person that said, “I’m a sellout. I compromised things. I turned my back on my community. I’m a horrible person.” Just one example. Audre Lorde, famous activist and lesbian. Audre Lorde had the exact same experience when she was about to board a plane and someone said, “Are you a Rastafarian?” Basically saying like, “We’re going to discriminate against you if you say yes.” She wasn’t, but for a second, she was like, “I’m going to make a stand. I’m going to fight for this because this is unjust. This is unfair.”

Then, they started unloading her luggage from the plane because she wouldn’t answer, and then, she said, “No, I’m not a Rastafarian,” because she wanted to enjoy her vacation. Famous activist, Audre Lorde, had this experience, which in isolation, I can totally see some acquaintances of mine saying like, “Wow, what a sell-out. What a compromise. I can’t believe she would do that. I can’t believe she would sacrifice her values just to get on vacation,” but this stuff happens. This stuff happens to all of us.

Patrick: The book, it just sounds so… the stories in it, so dynamic. Just as a quick reminder the title of the book — because we’re going to have to wrap up our conversation. Lily, you and I could talk for hours, but I think maybe we’ll have a conversation follow-up, at some point, because I definitely think there is so much more that we can talk about that.

Lily: Totally.

Patrick: The name of the book is The Ethical Sellout: Maintaining Your Integrity In The Age of Compromise. Check it out. Lily, going back to the conversation on trust and the work that you’re doing to help organisations understand where they’re at and understand the importance of looking at the past, making amends for the past before we can move forward, I think that is really meaningful work that you’re doing.

As I said at the start of the conversation, I’m continuously impressed with your perspective, the insights that you share, your honest perspective, and your honest speak because I think that’s where — if we talk honestly and we’re comfortable with talking in a direct way and just in a transparent way, that’s a very good step forward for a lot of people. Probably uncomfortable for a lot of people to think about moving into this super honest talk, but honestly, I feel that’s the way we’re going to move forward. You inspire me. I know you inspire many people to do that, so thank you for the work that you’re doing.

Lily: Thank you for having me, Patrick. I love being honest, that’s why I’m a consultant! It’s my entire career.

Patrick: You’re brilliant at it. Lily, thank you again, and I’m sure we’ll have a follow-up conversation at some point in the coming months. Be safe and we’ll talk to you soon.

Lily: Thank you.

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