Do Diversity and Inclusion Have to Be Overwhelming?

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March 6, 2019 7 min read
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In the past, efforts at building diversity and inclusion have been more of a “nice-to-have” than an essential. Because these goals can be complex, have no simple procedures and involve multiple variables, D&I efforts often get shelved — and collect dust.

But recent shakeups in the corporate world have shown how important these efforts ultimately are.

Look at Prada, which recently announced the formation of a diversity advisory council after allegations of racism arose over branding efforts like its Pradamalia collection which stirred up accusations of blackface. H&M faced a similar issue when a marketing image of a black child wearing a “coolest monkey in the jungle” shirt raised red flags for the African-American community.

Related: These Were the Best Companies for Women and Diversity in 2018

Fortunately, not every company is sitting back, waiting for a controversy to force it into adopting diversity and inclusion efforts. But the thought of implementing such an initiative may still seem overwhelming. The real question is: Does it have to be?

One giant leap for humankind

Letting D&I remain in the nice-to-have category becomes dangerous for one simple reason: Businesses run on people. And employee well-being ineeds to be part of the conversation whenever changes, implementation and forward movement are considered.

This particularly applies to startups, which often have a tough time implementing D&I initiatives, especially in the tech world. It’s common knowledge that women are woefully under-represented in tech startups (a fact reflected in this 2018 survey by Unilever Foundry).

And a lack of women is only one of the problems for these companies: A 2016 study from First Round Capital found that fully 54 percent of responding companies had nothing more than an informal plan for inclusion, and 23 percent had no strategy at all (or even plans to start one).

Baby steps

Given the big role tech startups play in the business world, it’s more important now than ever that they invest in true D&I efforts. No longer do companies have to please just a few homogeneous people within driving distance; they are working in a global economy, and their customer base is usually more diverse than the base mom-and-pop businesses previously served. These customer bases, in fact, now extend to different cultures and religions, even different levels of physical or mental ability.

Related: Why Diversity In The Workforce Is Imperative

So a detailed approach is key. But entrepreneurs often approach diversity and inclusion efforts in one large bite. They try to handle these tasks like any other work project. Yet because D&I deals so closely with human psychology, more nuance is needed.

So, what exactly should companies be doing? Despite what most people think, it can be surprisingly easy to pare down a company’s culture transformation into more manageable bites, starting with the following simple steps:

1. Don’t wait; plan it anyway. Some companies like to wait until an issue arises before they address it. Don’t. That’s one of the worst things you can do. Instead, take a page out of Diageo’s book. The alcohol beverage company has set its own goals for achieving success in diversity and inclusion, including a stated goal that its senior leadership team be made up of at least 35 percent women by 2020 and 40 percent by 2025. Because of Diageo’s proactive efforts in this area, the company has received awards, recognition and heaps of positive media attention.

In short, being proactive in this area is far superior to being reactive. Just as companies often are on top of the latest trends in their industries with whatever product or service they provide, they should also be up on the latest human-centric business structures and advice. After all, businesses are working with humans, so they’ll have to cater to their needs, both physically and mentally.

2. Ask, “What did we miss with diversity training?” Oftentimes, management and HR departments think basic diversity training will take care of everything and answer every question. It doesn’t, it shouldn’t and it won’t. In fact, studies have shown that training-only approaches often have the opposite effect, creating greater difficulties for trainees.

Different people have different experiences with diversity, so it’s important to make sure there is room to connect with individuals who might not have had the exposure or the proper language to communicate in diverse populations.

As we come to know more, we tend to try to do better. What types of sessions are needed can be determined through our very own “focus group”: the company diversity committee. In my previous work crafting and expanding diversity initiatives, obtaining direct one-on-one feedback from participants has yielded far better insights than any outside observations I could possibly make following a wait-and-see approach.

3. Provide follow-up sessions. Never assume that following up on diversity training is optional. You always need to follow up. Regular trainings will help participants identify and work through deeply rooted issues.

I recommend starting with follow-up trainings or discussions once a quarter. Depending on how those sessions go, you can then start adjusting the time line. If you experience a flood of complaints or an obvious lack of participation, you may need to adjust the frequency. Pay attention, as well, to how employees are dividing themselves. If groups sit together or organize after-work get-togethers along fault lines like gender, race or sexual identity, that fact could indicate unresolved divisions or problems.

4. Know that D&I efforts are always worth the risk. If you employ people, then you will need people-focused solutions as well as the business-focused solutions you implement for your products and services. However, don’t confuse the two — these are separate areas and should be treated as such.

Bringing in a consultant that specializes in diversity and inclusion efforts can help set a steady foundation. From there, building on the business will improve upon the existing culture. According to research by McKinsey & Co., the companies it studied that had more diversity on their executive boards had higher returns on their equity — a full 53 percent higher than that of their less-diverse competitors.

Related: There’s an Economic Case for Diversity in Tech. Do You Know What It Is?

Employers often feel that they’re in an eternal rat race trying to be diverse and inclusive. This is only because, traditionally, businesses were largely created and maintained by a homogeneous population, namely white males. So the precedent was set to attune to only that population, in terms of both the business and consumer.

Now, it’s understandable that, at some point, as the landscape of hiring changes, so must the companies — and the people — who run them. For a moment, set aside the legal jargon and think about what would most benefit your community, business and the consumer. Chances are good that a few fresh faces would help make that happen.


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