Like it or not diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) programs are here to stay. They’re not just a fad, and they do affect your business.
Right now it may feel that DEI is something that really only applies to corporate, government and just for businesses with pockets much deeper than yours. However, organisations of all sizes are coming under pressure to show plans, policies and actions regarding DEI. Potential employees, particularly millennials, are drawn to workplaces that have a strong emphasis on this. Large firms are assessing potential suppliers on the evidence of how they deal with diversity in the workplace, and granting business accordingly.
Social movements such as ‘Me Too’ and ‘Black Lives Matter’ are putting the spotlight on prejudice, discrimination and equality on a global scale.
So how does this all boil down to you doing something about diversity in your business, no matter how small or large? The good news is, if you are still reading, you are already ahead of the pack. In that sense it’s like the massive focus on privacy. No-one now would send out a marketing email without an Unsubscribe option, or send one unsolicited. Yet that has been a big shift in business over the past few years. Similarly the increased focus on workplace safety, which is something that everyone has become much more aware of.
So, at a practical level, what does action in this space look like? Here are five steps:
1. Recognise and understand your diversity position
Do a quick exercise to assess what current levels of diversity you have. Have a look from the ownership, board, executive, management and employee levels. Include temporary and contract staff. Start with the ratios of gender, people of colour and age. You might find that you have a management team that is 20% female, but an overall employee picture of 45% female. The numbers matter, not least so that you can have an informed conversation.
2. Add diversity and inclusion to your values and policies and make them visible
Most organisations of any size have policies on safety, bullying and harassment, equal opportunity – these are a ‘must’ to do business. Similarly, people are now starting to look for policies and value statements on DEI. These might be prospective customers, suppliers or employees. Make these policies and/or values visible onto your website and other platforms where people will go to look up your company.
3. Understand your bias
Much is said now about ‘unconscious bias’. The simple fact is that we treat people who look different to us… well, different. Even very well-meaning experts fail the various tests of treating everyone the same. But it is what you do after the initial response that is important. Many of us overcompensate and start treating people differently, perhaps with kid gloves. Or maybe we develop an exaggerated interest in someone’s country of origin and ‘What is it like over there?’ (Hint: most people initially want to fit in and don’t want a fuss made of where they came from. Same goes for someone who is younger or older than the average. They don’t want their age to be constantly referred to. Drawing attention to it can be unhelpful, even if well-intentioned.)
The point is that bias exists in everyone but we have to learn to counteract that without overcompensating. Treating everyone as valuable, required and unique people is the goal, difficult as it is.
4. Start the DEI conversation with your current staff
You don’t have to be a diversity expert to start having the conversation with your staff. Just like you would with things like safety, bullying or cybersecurity – many of your issues and solutions will be uncovered by starting a genuine conversation. It will be uncomfortable at first, but not talking about it is embedding the problem further.
When I started working, many years ago, it was commonplace for men to refer to women’s menstrual cycle in terms of behaviour. If a sharp word was said, or a conflict took place, it was put down to “that time of the month”. Women who were in management positions and were assertive and confident “had balls”. Now the world may have moved on in recent decades, but there are possibly still some people in your organisation that may use prejudicial language against women and others. This is often done in humour.
This needs to be part of your ongoing conversations with your team to help them to understand why this kind of language isn’t the harmless fun they may consider it.
5. Change your hiring practices
There are many well-known studies about how overtly prejudiced a typical recruitment cycle can be. Here's one example: orchestras were hiring men far more than women. Using a screen to conceal candidates from the jury during preliminary auditions increased the likelihood that a female musician would advance to the next round by 11 percentage points. During the final round, “blind” auditions increased the likelihood of female musicians being selected by 30%.
While your process may not be as dramatic, you can do simple things to help eradicate bias:
i) Look at the language of your ads. Do you include hard messages such as ‘Needs to thrive in stressful situations,’ or ‘has to deal with conflict’ or ‘needs to be flexible with working hours’? If you are, then you are not attracting a broad range of candidates and mainly appealing to a male bravado. Most professional jobs come with stress and conflict, but do you have to call it out before a candidate has even thought about joining your organisation?
ii) Go easy on the gaps. Consider last year. Many good people lost their job in March 2020 and had very little prospect of finding another one. Similarly, women (and men) who spent one or two years having a child and devoted themselves to parenting – one of the most difficult and educational experiences you can possibly have. Yet we judge a CV with gaps in employment and worry that they’ve been ‘out of the game too long’ or will have difficulty ‘getting up to speed’.
iii) Go easy on the café job. Similar to (b) above, someone may have spent a long time finding the job they are qualified for and so they worked in a café or bar to make ends meet. This shows a tendency for hard work and resilience, yet we will often judge it as a negative.
iv) Confidence is not everything. Many high achievers (women and men) are not confident, assertive people and often cannot explain their achievements well in an interview, or in some cases are reluctant to bring them up at all. You need to be able to look for this and work harder to draw this out when interviewing candidates. Don’t rush to judgement in that they ‘looked good on paper’ but couldn’t ‘cut it’ at the interview and then get drawn to candidates that are super confident and strident. Your aim is not to hire people exclusively because they happen to be good being interviewed!
There is ground to cover with DEI. It is not just the latest US management fad and will increasingly affect all businesses of all sizes in Australia. It should not be a ‘tick the boxes’ exercise but one that reflects your values and your human approach to doing business overall. Getting on the front foot now to set up a more diverse and inclusive workforce will improve your business immensely, now and into the future.
Craig Nenke is a member of The Network of Consulting Professionals and an expert at change management. You can contact him on 0438 524506 or email@example.com.