As a diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) leader for more than 15 years, I field questions all the time from founders looking for a magic solution to building diverse orgs. Fortunately or unfortunately, there isn’t one – it takes hard work, consistency, and intention.
But as companies begin their journeys, it’s important to prioritize DEI initiatives from the start – and at the top. If you don’t see visible diversity at the top, it’s less likely that a greater range of people will want to join your company; they will not feel confident in their chances to advance. So that visible diversity is important – but it’s also important to take a step back and look at things in totality. Here are four strategies to consider as you design an inclusive org.
1) Focus on behavior
I often say that I can run around with sprinkles, rainbows and unicorns all day, but it’s an employee’s day-to-day that matters. So think about the kind of organization you want to create and the kind of behavior you want to see. Sit down and really think critically about it. Leaders and people managers must create a culture of inclusion and belonging – but how do they do that if they don’t know how? Give them the resources they need to build those inclusive spaces and look for opportunities for coaching, training, and crucial conversations along the way.
It’s worth noting that psychological safety – not diversity – has emerged as the #1 foundation of a high performing team. Without psychological safety, diversity cannot thrive. Psychological safety means there’s an absence of fear, or of pushing against the status quo and offering new ideas. No one wants negative consequences, or to feel like their voice isn’t important. So focus first on creating an environment where people want to come – where they feel welcome, safe, and heard.
2) Model inclusive leadership
Your leaders have a big job beyond running the company: The behaviors they role model are what employees are watching out for. Representation matters, and if leadership roles are perceived as exclusive, employees and candidates will feel like they can’t grow there. So keep an eye on a range of representation numbers and metrics; visible diversity is important, but it’s also vital to include people from different backgrounds, age, and lifestyles.
As you grow, take care to remove any bad actors. I do not say that lightly, but I stand by it. Sometimes as a company, you have to make tough choices, and we’ve all seen times when employees were given a little leeway if they’re killing it in sales or they’re a great performer. But bad behavior is poison to your organization, especially when you’re small. So you’ve really got to take a stand on that and role model the behavior that you’d like to see within your organization.
3) Replace bias and barriers with flexibility
As you build a company, take care to create policies and procedures that reflect the entire workforce. This means identifying and removing any bias and barriers. This isn’t just about gender or race; think about parents and caregivers currently struggling with our current reality. Don’t let your company policies leave them in the cold.
You never know what someone has going on outside of work, or what kinds of pressures they face. So work hard to create an environment that’s flexible for everyone, no matter their circumstance. We’re all living through a state of trauma right now. Everybody has something, right? If it’s caregiving, civil unrest, the pandemic, economic uncertainty, or even Murder Hornets, we’re all dealing with the things. So create an environment that says: You are a tremendous asset to us and we value you. Create environments, policies and procedures that work for everybody.
4) Commit to accessibility
It’s an unfortunate truth that people with disabilities are often forgotten when it comes to technology, policies, and procedures. To build an inclusive org, you have to commit to accessibility – to making sure your work environment, your products, and everything else is accessible to everyone.
There are millions and billions of people worldwide with disabilities. In fact, most of us either do or will have a disability at some point in our lifetime. So you’d never want to create a space where someone cannot access your services or your product, or where an employee or candidate couldn’t work and thrive there. Accessibility ensures that everything works for everyone. It’s not like if you change things to be accessible, then people without disabilities can’t also access it. So these changes shouldn’t feel like a burden – It’s more of making a space and a product that works for everyone.
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