The top 5 workplace diversity and inclusion focus areas
Taking action on diversity and inclusion in scaling startups is tough. Studies show inclusive companies sell more, are more innovative, and have more bottom line revenue and returns on equity, but it can feel like the conversation is only ever about big companies.
Large corporations with budgets can often hire full departments dedicated to inclusion. Scaling startups, on the other hand, have so many pressures on them that diversity and inclusion (D&I) can get pushed to the back burner.
There’s good news at the end of the tunnel, though. D&I involves the whole organization but can grow organically, which means you can focus on the five foundational items that make the most impact. Some of these actions are chronological but others can be done at any time depending on what is best for your organization.
1: Identifying core D&I challenges in your workplace
While research points to common issues across the board, this area is about finding what in your organization is bottlenecking progress towards a more inclusive workplace. It’s important to note this step is about knowledge collection, not judging or pointing fingers.
First, tell your executive team (or at least your direct manager) that you’re building this business case so you don’t shock them when you come back with (potentially-painful) challenges identified. Afterwards, seek feedback from all employees, whether through surveys or interviews, on what diversity and inclusion means to them and what issues they see in the workplace.
Once you’ve got some feedback, seek volunteers for an “Inclusion Advocate” committee. This self-appointed team of no more than 5-7 people will be your go-to for feedback on initiatives and socializing ideas later on.
Here are some takeaways for identifying diversity and inclusion issues in your workplace:
Let your executive team or manager know you’re building a business case so they can support you - or at least be aware it’s happening
Conduct a survey or interviews with everyone in the organization to find out what diversity and inclusion means to them - and what issues they see
Keep surveys / interviews optional so people don’t feel forced to engage if they aren’t ready
Based on survey and interview feedback, audit your organization’s people processes (hiring, performance management, salary negotiation, offboarding, etc.) and earmark clear issues employees brought up or note areas for further exploration
Build an “Inclusion Advocate” team of 5-7 self-appointed employees who can offer feedback and socialize new initiatives
2: Getting senior leadership buy-in for your D&I strategy
Once you’ve collected data and made a plan, you have to get buy-in from senior leadership. Not only will this be necessary for you to get resources or budget, but executive sponsorship is the number one success factor in corporate projects.
When building a business case, remember executives are humans, too. Some will immediately be on board, but others may be skeptical and not believe it’s an issue until they hear feedback from employees. You may also face executives who believe D&I is not important; that’s where cold, hard facts come in.
Here are some takeaways for getting executive buy-in on a diversity and inclusion project:
Be prepared with both “nudges” - easy tasks for quick progress - and “big splashes” - large tasks that may take longer but have lasting impact.
A “nudge” might be something like making bathrooms gender neutral or using a tech program like Textio to remove bias from your job descriptions.
A “big splash” might be something like revamping your talent management process or hiring a Chief D&I Officer.
Have your group of Inclusion Advocates read the strategy before showing it to executives to ensure the plan ties into organizational vision and mission
Anticipate executive concerns and get ahead of their questions such as concerns about budget or time allocation. For more skeptical or downright unsupportive execs, you may face questions about why D&I matters at all or if it will cost the company tons of money but get nowhere.
Remind executives that inclusion is not about forcing action - the research shows that doesn’t work
3: Creating conversations and awareness of workplace inclusion initiatives
After getting executive buy-in, the real work begins to create conversations and awareness about inclusion challenges and solutions. Awareness can come in many forms, whether a large event, one on one chats, or technological solution like Crescendo.
During this phase, you may face a lot of resistance. This is the time to deeply listen and keep the conversation as action-focused as possible. Inclusion Advocates should be socializing ideas causally whenever possible during this phase so people can engage on different levels.
The key here is to create a brave space where people can be honest about how they feel and what they are able or willing to do. These conversations still need ground rules - supporting honesty is not giving permission to be rude or discriminatory, for instance - but can be opportunities to bring new perspectives to the table.
In order to be open about changes without creating a forced-work environment, make all initiatives and conversations optional. Different people need different timelines to join conversations, and pushing them too much may create resentment and backlash.
Here are some takeaways for creating conversations and awareness about D&I initiatives:
Check with Inclusion Advocates on how to promote awareness - events, panel discussions, AMAs (“Ask-Me-Anything” talks), sponsoring an external event, or technology solutions like Crescendo
Focus on creating brave spaces where people can speak openly about their opinions and experiences (but remember, there are still ground rules)
Have Inclusion Advocates socialize initiatives casually to encourage further employee buy-in
Keep D&I initiatives optional so people can join at their own pace
If it works in your organization, appoint a Chief D&I Officer who has a seat at the executive table. This position can be rotating as well for different perspectives on a regular basis.
4: Equipping middle management and HR for long-term success
Middle managers and HR need the same buy-in work as executives, but with another step after. Make sure you explain how they play a role in each of the planned initiatives, offering education, resources, or access to you along the way so they are “just-in-time” prepared.
If you face resistance from middle management, show them the facts about inclusion helping team dynamics: one study from Forbes found teams that follow inclusive processes make decisions 2x faster with 1/2 as many meetings.
Here are some takeaways for equipping HR and middle management for success:
Before rolling out any major initiatives, present them to middle management as a “first look” so they can prepare themselves and their teams
Be ready to listen to manager concerns. Address them either in small groups or one on ones so you can ensure all middle managers are heard and on board.
Give middle management and HR folks who actively support diversity initiatives the chance to be public about their work, showcasing the behaviours and actions you want others to exhibit
5: Building structures and policies for scaling inclusion
Policies and procedures help to create lasting, scalable inclusive practices. There’s no standard course of action for which policy change should come first, so this is a good time to go back to the Problem Identification research and see what employees asked for. Be sure to also check best practice research for data-driven insights.
In all policies and procedures, offer frameworks that guide action so people can make their own decisions. You’re not there to tell everyone what to do in every situation, so policies and procedures need to give a pathway for people to walk down with appropriate escalation as needed.
Here are some takeaways for building inclusive structures and policies:
Aggregate inclusion-focused data (such as pay levels, promotions, or employee engagement tracked by demographics)
Develop action-guiding frameworks to help inclusion flourish such as “Inclusion checklists” for things like events, hiring, employee one on ones, marketing, copywriting, and product development
Develop a clear “Respect in the workplace” policy outlining what is and is not tolerated - and offer clear escalation pathways. Be aware of how culture or values are perceived in this context (i.e. “full transparency” is not permission to discriminate)
Refer to employee feedback and best practice research when designing policies or procedures to ensure they match the company’s unique identity while staying data-driven
Inclusion is about making sure employees have an environment where they can thrive, so your company’s initiatives and tactics may look different than another’s. As you go along this journey, you may find something the research says is amazing may not work well for your company, but another initiative does - be flexible to go with what works. If data collection shows progress towards more inclusion (and all the benefits that go with it), it justifies the agile shift.
Taking on an inclusion initiative is difficult, but the results are worth it. Be prepared to listen openly - to both the good and the bad - as you go through this process, keeping an eye for the next step or how you can address concerns and mitigate issues. In every conversation and with each step along the way, don’t be afraid to iterate and grow.
Author: Stefan Palios
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