At this point, there’s no debate: A diverse workplace provides benefits across-the-board, increasing revenue, innovation, employee engagement, customer loyalty and market opportunities.
But publicly declaring commitment to diversity and inclusion is one thing.
Putting it into practice in a meaningful way, however, requires another level of courage and commitment. Leaders need to have the humility to admit their mistakes, a tolerance for conflict and willingness to step outside their comfort zone.
It can be daunting when there are so many ways to get it wrong: Understanding these three hard truths will help you succeed sooner rather than later:
Stop waiting for it to get easier.
As a diversity, equity and inclusion consultant and lead facilitator for ReadySet, Willie Jackson has worked with hundreds of clients across the globe.
But even as leaders embrace the value of diversity, he’s seeing their extreme discomfort in actually enabling it — starting with how they communicate. Because the stakes feel so high, they’re in terror of saying the wrong thing,” says Willie. “So they hide behind safe, conservative statements that become diluted as they reach their intended audiences.”
If you’re seriously looking to improve the racial and ethnic diversity on your teams, he advises, be explicit. “It’s not enough to list that you’re an equal opportunity employer and cross your fingers. LinkedIn is a fantastic platform to spread the word about opportunities and using phrasing like ‘women and underrepresented folks strongly encouraged to apply’ can make a difference.”
Bringing more underrepresented folks into the company isn’t enough, of course: You need to set them up for success. “Some managers who lack experience with diverse employees are reluctant to give critical feedback to someone who’s underperforming — until it’s too late to turn the ship around,” says Willie.
As usual, the solution lies in transparent, courageous communication. You can start by sharing your own experience, for example: “I can’t pretend to know what’s going on in your world. But early on in my career, I experienced trouble meeting deadlines. I don’t want to force a conversation but my door is open if I can be of support.”
None of this is easy. But waiting until you feel ready isn’t an option: You can only learn by doing.
Jan Hase, co-founder and CEO of Wunderflats, has been committed to diversity since the early days of his “housing as a service” start-up. Now, with 108 employees, 42% of his leadership team is women.
“You can’t wait until you’re a certain size to start thinking about diversity,” he says. “It adds too much value. Not only does it boost innovation, you also make better decisions because you’re considering a variety of different backgrounds and viewpoints.”
Productivity improves as well: Jan notes that meetings with diverse participants are shorter and more focused because there’s a conscious adherence to common values as the basis for collaboration.
Even with the best of intentions, however, he’s discovered how easy it is to inadvertently discourage diversity.
For example, their original job descriptions for sales positions included knowledge of Pipedrive CRM software as an optional criterion: Not a deal-breaker, just a “nice to have.” But when they spoke with potential candidates, they found that a number of female applicants had taken themselves out of the running simply because they didn’t have experience with Pipedrive. HR removed the optional requirement and the ratio of female candidates increased from 25% to 45%.
In another instance, despite their non-discriminatory positioning of the platform, someone pointed out that all the bespoke illustrations of landlords on their blog depicted white men. They resolved this by putting a greater emphasis on the importance of visual language.
Promoting diversity is not a “one and done” initiative: It requires vigilant and ongoing attention on every aspect of the business.
Take responsibility for the impact.
Innovation coach Rachelle Samson Oribio recalls the three-day diversity-themed innovation event she organized for a major tech client, where she hired an Asian man and a Black woman to facilitate.
Standing on stage together at the end of Day One — in front of 100 attendees — one of the facilitators made a comment to the other that was so blatantly racist, sexist and offensive that the audience audibly gasped.
Rachelle, herself in shock, rushed up on stage to ensure the wellbeing of her team. But in speaking with attendees the next day, she realized that they were also extremely traumatized.
So on the final day of the event, Rachelle got up on stage and took ownership for everything. She acknowledged the incident — taking responsibility for the unintended impact — apologized to the attendees and assured them that the incident was being explicitly addressed, not swept under the rug.
She and her client liaison encouraged the group to share their thoughts, feelings and concerns, facilitating a discussion where they could begin to heal and turn trauma into a lesson learned. “We’ve never seen someone take responsibility like that before,” marveled one HR professional who participated.
Here then, perhaps, is the ultimate lesson: cultivating a diverse workforce isn’t about perfection right off the bat. Rather, it’s about the ongoing process of creating an environment for growth and evolution.