Walking the Talk: key considerations for building a diverse workplace and inclusive workplace culture

Cathy Leonard
Diversity and Inclusion Strategist, Cathy Leonard Consulting

The business case for diversity and inclusion (D&I) is strong. We know that well-managed diverse teams perform better than homogeneous teams. We know that companies with greater levels of diversity in leadership teams are more likely to have above-average profitability than their industry peers. And, we know that employees want to work with and consumers want to purchase from organizations that are inclusive and socially responsible. With all that is known about the benefits of building a diverse workforce and inclusive workplace culture, why are we not seeing significant improvement in the diversity of our workplaces and inclusiveness of workplace cultures?

There is no lack of resources and recommendations on how to address workplace diversity and inclusion. Perhaps part of the problem is knowing where to start, or, once started, where to focus. To help direct your efforts, this article presents 10 recommendations to move your organization from “we’re trying” to “we’re seeing real results”.

People raising hands to participate

Before we dig in, let’s take a minute to go back to basics and review the definitions of diversity and inclusion. Although we often use these two terms together, they are not interchangeable. In fact, it is critical to distinguish between them to understand why each are important and how they work together.

Diversity refers to all the ways in which we are different from and similar to one another. These differences may be visible or invisible and include the wide variety of human experiences and our many unique traits. These can include: age, culture, disability, education, ethnicity, gender, gender identity, geographic location, occupation, language, marital status, mental health, nationality, parental status, personality type, race, religion, sexual orientation, socio-economic status, thinking style and work style. No two people are alike; we all bring with us diverse perspectives and life experiences. Therefore, diversity is everywhere.

The power of diversity is unleashed when the workplace is inclusive. An inclusive workplace is one where employees can bring their authentic selves to work and feel safe, respected and valued for who they are and their contributions to the organization; where there is equitable access to resources and opportunities; and where diversity is sought out and valued in decision-making.

To provide a frame of reference, it is often said that diversity is the mix, and inclusion is getting the mix to work well together. Or, that diversity is being invited to the party and inclusion is being asked to dance.

An inclusive workplace is one where employees can bring their authentic selves to work and feel safe, respected and valued for who they are and their contributions to the organization.

How do you unleash the power of diversity? Here are 10 strategies to consider when seeking to enhance diversity and inclusion in your organization:

1. Understand your organization’s business case for valuing diversity and inclusion.

Why is it important? How will it help your organization/business or unit/group? How does it align with your organization’s values? Help employees understand the links between diversity and inclusion, the organization’s goals and the work they do each day. Leaders need to understand the strategic benefits to be able to support necessary efforts and communicate the value.

2. Resource the work appropriately.

Like marketing, product development or any other important aspect of your organization, diversity and inclusion requires resources to produce results. Depending on the size and capacity of your organization this may mean having a person or group with this responsibility, or carving out a portion of time from a team member’s portfolio. If the responsibility is a portion of someone’s role, ensure it doesn’t fall in the dangerous zone of being “parked” on the side of their desk. Rather, ensure it is an important component of their work. In addition, set them up for success by ensuring they have sufficient D&I expertise or access to an expert.

3. Develop a strategy.

Figure out where you want to go and develop a plan to get there. Include diverse viewpoints during the strategy development process for a greater chance of developing a relevant strategy that is broadly supported. Keep focus on not only addressing diversity, but also inclusion. Build the strategy on facts and not assumptions — you may have existing data to use for this purpose or may need to collect it. Align your D&I strategy with your business priorities for maximum impact.

4. Measure.

What gets measured gets done. Use SMART goals and measure impact, not just activities. A common D&I performance measure is representation of equity-seeking groups at various levels of the organization compared to external availability or industry-specific benchmarks. I would recommend going beyond this to add inclusion and engagement measures to understand the experiences and needs of diverse employees. Create accountability with senior leaders for achieving goals and consider tying results to their performance measures.

5. Demonstrate visible and genuine senior leadership support for D&I.

Leaders set the tone for the organization. Everything they do and say signals what is truly valuable to the organization. Thus, embed clear and consistent messaging in both internal and external communications. Non-verbal messaging and informal communications can be just as, or more powerful than, scripted communications so it is important that leaders are walking the talk.

6. Review structural, process and behavioural aspects of your workplace.

Advancing diversity and inclusion in organizations takes a multi-pronged approach. Consider whether there are actual or perceived structural barriers in the workplace that could limit progress of diverse groups, whether there are biases or barriers embedded in processes such as recruitment, promotion, or compensation, or if certain behavioural norms create an inhospitable environment for some individuals. Testing systems, processes and norms can be complex and met with resistance, however, without digging into these areas there is little hope for meaningful, sustainable progress.

7. Ensure training is linked to workplace expectations.

Training can be an important component of a diversity and inclusion strategy, helping to educate and motivate employees. Ensure the organization’s expectations of training participants are clear and give them the direction and opportunity to apply their learnings in their day-to-day roles.

Diverse, inclusive workplace

8. Look beyond HR.

Diversity and inclusion have applications way beyond the HR department. Embed D&I throughout the organization by empowering all employees to use a “D&I lens”, considering diverse perspectives and inclusivity as part of the way they do their work.

9. Start with yourself.

If you have read this far, you likely have a genuine interest in moving this work forward in your organization. Lead by example. Seek out, listen to and understand diverse points of view that you may not have considered previously. Step outside your comfort zone to try to understand your beliefs and biases and determine if they are impacting equity in your workplace. You can be the difference.

10. Stay the course.

Diversity and inclusion is a long game. You will likely have some early wins, but because cultural change (which digging deep on D&I work can really be) is difficult to achieve, lasting transformation can take years. Ultimately, we’d like to get to a place where we say “this is just the way it is around here,” but until that time, a concerted effort is needed. Keep your head down and your spirits up.

If these steps seem daunting, or your organization does not have the capacity to take on this amount of activity in a short timeframe, start small. Your first order of business may be to execute on one item. Taking one step that is linked to your organization’s strategy will take you further than executing a laundry list of items that are not connected to your organization’s raison d’être. And even if your organization already has many diversity and inclusion initiatives or a well-developed diversity and inclusion strategy, remember, as mentioned above, D&I is a long game and it is never “done”. Depending on your situation, you could retest your business case and strategy to ensure that they are still relevant, and check to ensure you are getting the desired impacts from initiatives. Adjust your direction and refresh tactics as required. Keep going.

Cathy Leonard, Cathy Leonard Consulting

Cathy Leonard

Diversity and Inclusion Strategist, Cathy Leonard Consulting

Cathy works with organizations to build diverse workforces and inclusive workplace cultures. As a consultant, speaker and trainer she frames diversity and inclusion challenges as opportunities to support broader organizational goals.

Prior to launching her consulting firm, Cathy spent 15 years working across Canada in the oil and gas industry, focusing on diversity and inclusion, human resources and financial management.

Cathy holds a Master of Business Administration and a Bachelor of Commerce from Memorial University of Newfoundland, and a Leadership and Inclusion Certificate from Centennial College. She is a Canadian Certified Inclusion Professional and an associate with the Canadian Centre for Diversity and Inclusion.

Cathy Leonard Consulting | LinkedIn

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