Black History Month, which started Feb. 1, is a good time to take a look at the diversity, equity and inclusion environment at your business, HR experts say.
Many businesses have declared they’re inclusive organizations in order to appeal to younger generations of workers who want that kind of environment, but often these initiatives are largely cosmetic and don’t create lasting inclusion, says Amri Johnson, founder and CEO of business consulting firm Inclusion Wins and author of Reconstructing Inclusion: Making DEI Accessible, Actionable, and Sustainable.
“It’s one thing to embrace the DEI trends of the day or proclaim your commitment to ‘belonging,’ but it’s another to really invest in your employees and make inclusion normative,” Johnson says.
An inclusive culture pays dividends beyond attracting Millennial and Gen Z employees, says Valorie Waldon, director of integrated human capital services at Employers Council.
“Research has shown that organizations that embrace diversity — people from different backgrounds, different cultures, different experiences, different socioeconomic backgrounds — perform better in terms of financial performance and oftentimes in terms of market share, and they’re more innovative,” Waldon says.
She cites a 2020 report by management consulting firm McKinsey & Co., based on data from 1,000 companies in 15 countries, which found diversity winners that adopt systematic, business-led DEI policies outperform their less diverse peers on profitability.
For example, companies whose executive staff consists of more than 30 percent women outperformed companies with fewer women executives by 48 percent, the report found. And companies that were in the top quartile in terms of ethnic and cultural diversity outperformed those in the fourth quartile by 36 percent.
Nevertheless, the report states, in companies in the United States and the United Kingdom that were part of the study’s data set, women composed only 20 percent of their executive teams in 2019, and more than a third of the companies had no female executives.
The same year, ethnic and minority representation on executive teams stood at only 13 percent.
It’s up to business leaders to set the standard for diversity, equity and inclusion, says Reanna Werner, chief problem solver at consulting firm HR Branches.
“You have to lead by example,” Werner says. “Our team members emulate who we are, and how we act — not what we say, but how we act.”
What does DEI mean?
Diversity, equity and inclusion go beyond the minimum standards spelled out in Title VII of the federal Civil Rights Act and the Colorado Anti-Discrimination Act, says George Russo, director of the Colorado regional offices of Employers Council.
Those are the statutes that create protected classes — employers cannot discriminate in hiring or terms and conditions of employment based on race, religion, sex, color, national origin, sexual orientation or gender identity.
“The minimum is essentially, don’t discriminate,” Russo says. “DEI is looking at it from a different perspective.”
Diversity is probably the easiest of the DEI trilogy to understand, Werner says.
“It means inviting all walks of life, all cultures, all backgrounds, all experiences to the table, and appreciating and celebrating different experiences and backgrounds and cultures,” she says.
When she discusses equity, Werner says, she uses this example: “I picture a tall person and a short person trying to look over a fence. It’s easier for the tall person; the shorter person can’t see over the fence because they don’t have the tools, so they’re not on equal ground. When we provide a structure to put that shorter person on an equal or level playing ground so they can look over the fence, that’s equity.
“It’s about providing everybody the opportunity to see over the fence and giving them the tools to do so, because we’re all built differently.”
Diversity and equity without inclusion is tokenism, she says.
That could happen, for example, if you bring a woman and a Black man to the table for a meeting but no one asks for their input or acknowledges them if they do try to contribute to the discussion.
“When you provide an inclusive environment, that’s when diversity and equity actually bloom and blossom into something real,” Werner says.
Some organizations have added a B, for belonging, to the DEI acronym, Waldon says. “Do people feel welcome? Do they feel a part? Another piece of inclusion is, are people given the information they need to do their job? Are they able to create those professional relationships at work that augment their ability to be successful within the organization?”
It’s up to leaders to make sure managers are trained to create that kind of environment, she says.
Creating inclusive culture
It takes work to create a culture of diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging, Waldon says.
“It starts with a manager setting that out as an intention,” she says. “You have to know where people stand now. Do we have an environment where people feel that they can be fully themselves and participate and be authentic and share their ideas and thoughts?”
Creating that environment begins with finding out who doesn’t feel included and what they think needs to change, she says. That could be done by an anonymous survey and a focus group follow-up, one-on-one conversations or bringing in a consultant to help take the temperature and create a strategy.
“Employers are one thing,” Werner says. “But I think it’s important for employers to acknowledge that it doesn’t stop there. It’s who you do business with — do your vendors bring a diverse perspective? Do your customers bring a diverse perspective? Do your advisers bring a diverse perspective?
“Here at HR Branches, we’re a small team, and we’re white women. But we surround ourselves with a very diverse community, some of whom are like-minded and some are very different-minded. During times of decision and contemplation, I’m usually going to the individuals who have a very different perspective than I do to give me a well-rounded perspective.”
Johnson says he encourages people to look at the organization’s “positive core” — the mindset, attitudes, behaviors and rituals that people demonstrate when they are feeling positive about the organization and which drive the organization in the right direction.
“We need to focus on positive strengths,” he says. “We don’t improve by tracking toward negatives.”
You have to lead by example. — Reanna Werner
Inclusion is an ongoing journey that depends on staying curious, learning from mistakes and continuously moving in the right direction, Johnson says.
It doesn’t happen overnight, but if your inclusion efforts have stalled, you can take some small steps to get back on track, he says:
Stop the blame game by changing the language.
True inclusion welcomes all stakeholders. “All humans need inclusion, and that encompasses those who have not been historically excluded,” Johnson says. “If you hear ‘us and them’ language, that’s a red flag. Urge people to replace it with ‘we.’ It may seem like a small thing, but language is powerful.”
Reassure employees that no one needs to hide or downplay their identity.
Johnson’s approach emphasizes what unifies people rather than what divides us. “What people need to realize is that we can have our affinities AND choose humanity,” he says. “They are not in conflict or competition. We can all thrive across our differences.”
Normalize social tensions.
Tensions are necessary and normal whenever there are differences in a group of people. But they can be viewed as opportunities to grow and create something extraordinary together.
“Calling out the elephant in the room can be a huge relief,” he says. “The danger comes only when leaders don’t know how to navigate the tensions and complexities that come from those differences.”
Scrap the jargon.
Terms like transphobia, unearned privilege and antiracism are off-putting and have been politically weaponized, Johnson says.
“Use simple words, create common vocabulary, and keep concepts brief and easy to understand,” he says. “People will be eager to jump in and participate when they know what you’re talking about.”
Keep coming back to the important question: Is what we are doing accessible, actionable and sustainable? “Make sure you do something every day to create the conditions for your people to do their best work and to thrive,” he says. “Sometimes you have to have really difficult conversations, but do so with care and make sure people feel safe and build trust. Do those things regularly, and you’ll see yourself having success.”