Lessons from DEI Changemakers: Take Your Shoes Off

In her latest blog post on the #makingairwaves blog, Mary Coleman reflects on trust in the workplace after another influential week of participating in the DEI Changemakers program.

In part three of this blog series, I shared an experience where I felt embraced and supported – included – by everyone in a group. This week in DEI Changemakers, we continued the conversation about inclusion in the workplace, specifically how to ensure that everyone, not just a specific population or those who can easily assimilate, feels included at work.

When it comes to inclusion and belonging, who gets to define what this means and how it feels? How can we ensure we are not ignorant to the pain of others – sometimes right next to us – because we are so accepted?

To answer these with thoughtful interrogation and analysis about our workplaces, Dominic Gaobepe with Cohesion Collective gave us a house analogy. In this analogy, the roof is inclusion, the overarching conception that protects us all; the pillars are talent, leadership, and culture; and the foundation is trust.

Like an actual house, though, the foundation is deeper than the surface and things buried far beneath can wreak havoc on the structure if not properly addressed. Sometimes these issues cause immediate signs of trouble, but other times they may take years to show symptoms. In this analogy, the underlying bedrock is historical context.

Without looking at and understanding how external conditions affect our internal operations and staff, the structure becomes fractured and eroded and trust becomes mistrust. How can we mend this? How can we restore the foundation through true healing? How do we know when the damage is too deep and we need to start over?

One way is to foster and sustain psychological safety. This differs from trust in an organization in that a workplace with psychological safety gives its employees the benefit of the doubt, versus when trust requires the employees to put their faith in the company. In a psychologically safe institution, employees and teams experience higher satisfaction, cooperation, engagement, and performance.

Going back to our house, if everyone felt psychologically safe at work, they would enter the building and take their shoes off. They would feel as comfortable in their own skin in the office as in their home. They come as their full selves, not a version of them, as Dominic suggested. Rather than switch shoes, the barriers we need to protect us while out in the world, we can simply shed them.

This is of course a simplified way of demonstrating how a workplace can and should nurture belongingness and inclusion so that everyone – not just a choice few – can be themselves and feel free to share their perspectives, challenges, and ideas without fear of ridicule or retaliation.

I remember watching Working Girl as a young girl and wanting so bad to be Melanie Griffith. When my eighth-grade class went to Washington D.C., we rode the metro and I pretended I was just another eager commuter. In my head, I had high heels, not books in my backpack, ready to swap them for my sneakers once I got to the office.

Other, wiser women at the time might have seen this as a small rejection of the patriarchy’s expectation for business attire. To me, though, this represented work. It represented the concept of the office as separate from oneself, where you literally stepped into other shoes to become ready for the tasks at hand. The workplace was not for individual expression and endorsement, but rather for company devotion and demand.

I now realize my youthful naivety in this view, reinforced by society in the many movies, television shows, and advertisements that depicted the typical office building as cold and sterile. There seemed to be an unwritten expectation that to thrive in a modern, corporate setting you must conform to the standards already at play.

Image Description: A faded, metallic sign with black lettering saying “Welcome Please Remove Your Shoes” with a sneaker icon in the bottom left.

Image by ducu59us on Shutterstock


Recent commentary addressed this and demonstrated how “comfortable” shoes for women are now more widely accepted. The commentary only went surface deep though, focusing on the physical comfort sneakers, flats, and other non-heeled shoes provide. To be inclusive though, an organization should extend this ease beyond the foot and to the soul.

A company based in Boulder, Colorado, Basecamp, decided in April 2021 to “return to what we do best.” The CEO and Founder, Jason Fried, interprets the workplace like that outdated and dehumanizing image, choosing to ignore the foundational fractures. Apparently, “there are too many unique perspectives” to make space for any to come through.

The post linked above goes into more details of how Basecamp will only allow its employees to focus on and discuss work-related topics at the office and on company platforms. The outside world – each employee’s full self – cannot infiltrate the organization’s walls.

Controversy and backlash were swift, with many pointing out the flaw in this thinking and how it has perpetuated inequitable, grueling workplaces for too long. Psychological safety comes not in shutting off your workforce and team members, but in embracing them. Basecamp is painfully overlooking the reality that we are each shaped by societal and historical context and cannot separate that from ourselves without a high cost to our sense of self, safety, and happiness.

Basecamp was not being paternalistic toward its employees by offering gym discounts, but in assuming people cannot see the insincerity in what a company says versus what it does. In truth, Jason is the unenlightened one to think “mission-driven” means stripping employees of their humanity.

Why can’t the workplace be a second home? One where we do not feel like guests. One where we can have stimulating and engaging conversations about the world to better inform behaviors and actions. That is where I want to work. A place where we take our shoes off.

Interested in reading more reflections inspired by Mary’s participation in the DEI changemakers program? Check out part one, part two, and part three of the series.