COVID-19 has only amplified pre-existing inequalities, with diverse employees reporting acute challenges that may not have been felt by their non-diverse counterparts. As a result, many companies have publicly pledged to improve diversity and inclusion (D&I) by hiring more individuals from underrepresented groups. However, diversity and inclusion are two distinct concepts. Hiring for diversity without first creating an inclusive environment is unlikely to pay dividends in the long run. In this article I look at some important steps that business leaders can consider in their efforts that will help create a flexible, open-minded and supportive company for the future.
Articulate the ‘why’
As with any organisational initiative, if the benefits of improving D&I aren’t clear in the top-line business strategy, it will be hard to generate tangible change for the future. Diversity and inclusion must be entrenched within the core of the business – as an enabler of growth, innovation, and market share. Indeed, when employees feel that they are accepted and included at work, employers see higher engagement, better performance, decreased stress and reduced conflict. There is also plenty of data that shows that on a statistical level, companies with greater diversity outperform companies with less diversity. For example, Harvard Business Review (HBR) found a significant relationship between diversity and innovation outcomes. In another study, HBR found that diverse companies are 70% more likely to capture new markets. By articulating the ‘why’, leadership will ensure that diversity and inclusion becomes part of their culture and adds true value throughout every part of the organisation.
Demonstrate leader commitment
Simply increasing diversity by recruiting candidates from different background will not guarantee increased inclusion, particularly when many employers make these hires at entry level, not within senior management. Visible commitment to diversity from internal and external leaders can play a significant role in the success of a company’s diversity efforts. For board members, this means asking their CEO difficult questions about change outcomes and the impact on employees. Executives should look to embody the values of inclusivity by building diverse teams, being empathetic, and sharing their own personal growth stories. Senior management must be tasked with formal accountability for achieving D&I KPIs in their part of the business, from improving representation within recruitment and promotion schemes, to increasing inclusion through improved employee engagement. These tasks should be considered a critical part of the day job, not an out-of-hours activity, to ensure inclusion becomes engrained within the culture and not an afterthought.
Hold everyone accountable
Company culture is made up of official policies and unspoken codes. Inclusivity should not only be entrenched within the ‘known’ policies, but also within the unspoken decisions made by employees at every level of the organisation. For example, many recruitment and career processes operate in ways that could unintendedly increase bias and decrease inclusivity: managers may give high-visibility work based on relationships rather than merit, or promote someone because they ‘know the right people’. Without making all employees accountable for D&I, change will never stick. Many companies create a dedicated group or committee who are passionate about inclusivity and can be responsible for implementing and communicating change. Inclusive behaviour should be explicitly encouraged and rewarded; rather than just continually rewarding the same behaviours like sales targets, leaders should consider recognising other, less visible contributions, such as ability to collaborate and be respectful of peers.
Coaching, not training
In one study of Fortune 1000 companies, 41% of respondents said their companies had very informal diversity efforts with no structure, citing the fact that they’re “too busy”. However, one-off diversity training programs may not result in sustained behaviour change. Leaders should equip their employees with the tools they need to have difficult conversations – from conflict resolution, to problem solving, empathy, and active listening. While many organisation have mandatory training on practical areas like product knowledge or compliance issues, it’s less common to offer coaching in these softer skills. If employees are equipped with this core skill set, it will help foster a more inclusive environment. Additionally, mentor programs that focus specifically on under-represented employee groups can prove transformative in creating a positive learning environment for both mentors and mentees, particularly those that cross race, gender, age, and ethnicity. Ultimately, diversity programs are most effective when they’re part of an enterprise-wide strategic approach, include both awareness and skills development, and are conducted over time.
Measuring diversity is becoming more commonplace in businesses, but inclusion is more of a challenge to track – how can employers measure the success of a respectful, accepting, and supportive culture? Employee feedback is the most powerful tool leaders can use to identify the attitudes that exist in their organisation. Gartner recently built a model of inclusion, based on qualitative interviews with more than 30 diversity and inclusion executives and a review of academic literature. Their research identified seven key dimensions of inclusion, including fair treatment, decision-making, trust, and psychological safety. With a set of established metrics like these, leaders can establish the right questions to ask in their survey – creating a baseline measure of employee perceptions to build on moving forward. This baseline offers insight into areas of inconsistency in teams and the organisation, and can be used to hold managers and senior leaders accountable.
Organisation are facing urgent calls to leverage the voices of all their people – across backgrounds, genders, cultures, and ethnicities. Root causes of inequality in the workplace are often systemic and cultural, and thus not easy to fix quickly. However, by creating a culture of inclusion and belonging, business leaders can begin to address the issues, empower their employees to be their authentic selves, and ensure lasting change for a more equitable future.