Diversity in the workplace is much more than a buzzy, progressive HR initiative — it’s a cultural pillar of any organization looking for an innovative and sustainable future.
A diverse team is an asset that can elevate morale and productivity, increase employee retention, ensure competitive positioning in the market, and tap into a broader reach of connections and resources. Individually, those effects might not be deemed worth of urgent and intensive action, but combined they can seriously impact an organization's bottom line. And yet, tangible progress towards diversity across most sectors is incomplete at best. Naturally that begs the question: What actually works?
First it has to be made clear that diversity is not synonymous with inclusivity.
Recruiting systems designed to meet a racial hiring quota will not have a positive, long-lasting effect on an organization’s perceived degree of inclusivity. Strong racially-inclusive practices are founded in diversity education, strategic planning, and a commitment to implementing new practices. Overhauling company culture can’t happen overnight — nor should it — but through thorough planning and persistence, a culture of inclusivity can be a realistic goal for any entity. An initiative of such importance is certainly overwhelming at face value. Here are seven strategies for building powerful and practical inclusivity practices:
1. Empathy in Leadership
Traits and values that leaders model in their day-to-day transcend any seminar, workshop, or round table session an organization could execute on. When it comes to the inclusion of minorities in the workplace, the first step of any long-term transformation is to acknowledge the problem exists in the first place. Instead of allowing it to be the “elephant in the room,” leaders should level with their team about any less-than-inclusive practices from the past and make it clear that they intend to generate change moving forward. Acting aloof only creates grey areas in company culture, whereas an empathetic and honest conversation sets a tone of progressive accountability — from the top-down.
2. Look to Your Leadership Team
Is the current c-suite a snapshot of diversity? Implementing and maintaining racially inclusive practices can feel like an uphill battle when the entire executive team is removed from minority-related experiences. In the event that the collective leadership is culturally congruent, the right education around diversity and inclusivity becomes paramount. Whether it’s regarding privilege in the workplace or how to alleviate racial bias in the interviewing process, ongoing training should be implemented to grow the executive team’s minority leadership and inclusivity skills. As future vacancies appear in the c-suite, candidates from minority groups should be strongly considered, not only for their skill and merit, but all also their unique personal and professional experiences as a minority member that they could contribute to the leadership team.
3. Evaluate the Employee Experience from Start to Finish
Having a racially diverse team on paper doesn’t necessarily mean that an organization is inclusive to minorities. If the employment experience in question is unfulfilling and marginalizing, high employee turnover is imminent. This is not only an expensive misstep, but quickly leads to a reputation of poor culture outside the organization’s walls. Furthermore, traditional recruitment methods like referral-based hiring frequently hinder diversity efforts, according to Adina Sterling, an assistant professor of organizational behavior at the Stanford Graduate School of Business. If an organization is predominately of one cultural background, referred candidates will typically continue to reinforce ethnically skewed numbers. At this point, a deep dive into the employee experience — from application to potential retirement or change in placement — is necessary. Are the diversity and inclusion objectives of the organization made clear to employees? Is everyone in leadership roles trained in cultural competence? Is minority employee feedback protected and valued? Are the results of these efforts tangible and measured? These questions can quickly uncover areas of weakness with realistic, actionable solutions.
4. Master the Art of the Fly By
Don’t underestimate the power of “checking in.” It can be difficult for minorities in the workplace to feel the confidence to speak up when needed, so building a consistent and healthy rapport between employees and their leaders is an important way to make sure they have the opportunity to be heard. Even if an organization seems to have strong, internal professional relationships, how well does everyone — from the top to bottom — know each other? The establishment of a feedback-culture makes it more plausible to retain and nurture top talent. With that being said, it’s of the utmost importance to take grievances seriously when they do come to light. When underrepresented or marginalized groups speak up, they need to know their concerns matter. Ruffling corporate feathers is a tough burden to bear, so it should be imperative that the benefits outweigh the struggles.
5. Know the Power of Language
Superficial policies and superfluous verbiage is the undoing of effective inclusion policies, according to a study by the Northwestern University School of Law. Phrases like “diversity of opinion” or “diversity of thought” have a variety of interpretations, however, “racially diverse” could not have a more clear meaning. In written form, racial and ethnic terms should be capitalized (“Black,” not “black”) and POC (people of color) should not be used when a specific ethnic group or race is being referred to. Words become actions, so daily verbiage should be reviewed thoughtfully and corrections should be positively encouraged.
6. Celebrate All Cultures and Religions
Something like a holiday calendar might seem insignificant in the big picture, but it has the power to shape company culture to be more ethnically inclusive. Traditionally, a corporate holiday calendar includes Christian and secular holidays, like Easter, Christmas, and New Year’s, but those days are not an accurate representation of a diverse team. Instead of one, uniform corporate holiday calendar, companies should consider flexible holiday time off. Rather than a predetermined list of holidays, organizations can provide employees a certain amount of holiday time they can take off to honor days of cultural and religious significance to them. This ensures that all minorities feel seen and empowered in their culture by their employers.
7. Know That it’s an Ongoing Effort
Any lasting shift to create a culture that is truly inclusive of minorities takes time and persistence. It’s not just enough to educate employees on minority inclusion. Like any new skill, creating new daily habits that can be assessed and measured will require constant nurturing. Praise positive behavior, and offer constructive observations privately and in real time. Continuous education and honest feedback are the foundation of real change.